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Caylee Hammack learned to trust herself for 2020’s finest debut

1 September 2020 | 1:37 pm | Staff Writer

Get to the bottom of how Caylee Hammack learned to trust herself to lead with one of 2020's finest debuts in album 'If It Wasn't For You'.

Caylee Hammack might have only just released her debut album 'If It Wasn't For You' in August, but she’s hardly new to music. Having been a staff songwriter with Universal for many years, the 26-year-old from Ellaville, Georgia, has since made a name for herself since her debut single, 2019’s ‘Family Tree’, for her entirely authentic, genuine and relatable songs. She writes from a place where she channels her own experiences, using her music as a form of therapy to remind herself howar she’s come and where she’s still headed. 

From the night she found out her house had burned down and she had lost everything being turned into ‘Forged In The Fire,’ to her experiences with love gained and lost like in ‘Small Town Hypocrite’, to the reminder to focus on the big picture in ‘Mean Something’ featuring Tenille Townes and Ashley McBride, Caylee Hammack ’s ability to be incredibly personal while still entirely universal in her stories is what sets her apart from many others also so early in their solo careers, and what has the country music industry across the world so excited to hear what she has to say.

The collaborations don’t stop there either, with Caylee Hammack recruiting country music’s most famous redhead, Reba McEntire for a fierce duet in the aptly titled ‘Redhead’. She also worked with none other than Alan Jackson for a stand alone single earlier this year in ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’. Collaborating with such heavyweights speaks to just how promising Caylee Hammack ’s career looks to country music fans. And, listening to her album, it makes sense. Infusing pop sensibilities with that classic country essence, her music shines with a bold and vibrant quality while maintaining that quintessential country sound she’s found a home in.

Speaking with her over Zoom, Caylee Hammack has an infectious energy that is immediately evident. Keeping as busy as she can by gardening and DMing with her fans, she and I chatted all about her new record while she was autographing sweatshirts with giant photos of herself on them for fans. And while her original plans for 2020 looked a lot different than what it has turned out to be, she remains positive and optimistic that she’ll come out of this stronger than ever, just as she has over and over again throughout her life. 

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Congratulations on the record. It is really, really beautiful. How does it feel for it to be out in the world?

It's wild, it's an amazing feeling, it's also terrifying. It was terrifying at first and now I'm into the good feeling because I see that people are connecting and that's all I wanted was for people to connect and to find some comfort in my music or some relate-ability at least, so it's been really good. A lot more good than bad, but almost felt like I was a bride with cold feet the day or two before. I was like, “I don't know if I can do this! I feel like I'm going to barf.” I had to battle the nerves of putting out your first album.

It is such a big moment, but it is a really fantastic record. I loved listening to it from start to finish. You co-wrote and co-produced every song on the record. It's documented well on the record that you've been through a lot. Does it feel liberating or nerve wracking to have something that's so completely “you” out for everyone to hear?

Very liberating. It was nerve wracking at first, when we were making the track list and the label really loved ‘Small Town Hypocrite’, which I wrote, all the songs I wrote as a staff writer.

Some people give me grief about, “You cuss so much!” I'm like, “Buddy, I was just talking about how I felt that day in the room.” My job is to write a song everyday when I walk in a room, whether I want it to or not. So guess what? I've been it. I like to say it how it is.

So at first when the label loved ‘Small Town Hypocrite’ and wanted to put it out and really send it around, I got nervous because I was like, “Are people going to think I'm too much? Are they going to think that I'm complaining too much?”

What I figured out is the things I was the most scared to put out, the things that I felt were too vulnerable, those seem to be the ones people connect to the most. So I'm kind of learning through all this that if I put myself out there and I do all of that with good intent to be a comfort to someone else, it seems people do connect and they do find comfort in it.

It gives me comfort in being myself when I'm able to tell my stories and people can tell me theirs.

Absolutely, and that's something that's so authentic within your music, but also with all the great country artists that we've seen over the years. It's that authenticity that you can't really just create. It just comes as part of being true to yourself and being real. Is that something that you've learned over the time, both from being a staff writer and now in your own career as well?

I have a thing about gut reactions. Your gut isn't always right, but there's a reason why you get those little gut instinct feelings.

One thing I figured out with music is if you get that visceral reaction to something, if the hair on the back of your neck or on your arms stand up, then I know that that was something I needed to do. I tried to just make sure that, anything I put out, I felt it and hopefully that happened.

Hopefully, we jam packed all of it in there, but now I'm just wondering how am I going to go from here? What stories am I going to tell next?

I'm hoping by telling mine that I can start telling other people's stories, similar to what Taylor Swift did on ‘folklore’. I really love when people open up and tell stories that don't have a voice to be heard.

Some of these songs have existed for quite some time, and some are newer than others. Have any of them taken on new meanings, given the world that you're now releasing them in?

‘Mean Something’ I think has really [had] a cool journey for [a] song. It was the first song that Mikey Reeves and I ever wrote together, my co-producer, and it's the whole reason why we got together and started producing the first song together, ‘Family Tree’, and voila, we made a record after. ‘Mean Something’ really meant a lot to me, because it was a desperate time. It was 2017. I watched Chance the Rapper at the GRAMMYs and he was riffing on these different things that I really thought was inspirational. So I started riffing my own stuff and my own melody, and I just said, “You know what? All of us just want to mean something. We just want to add up in the grand scheme of it, and if we can't, if we can't be at the top of the hill, we at least want someone that loves us and they're our person and we're their person.” I was like, “But isn't it funny how we can make those seem so different?”

We make anybody that doesn't look like us or think like us or live around us feel so different from us, but we all just want the same things. Isn't that kind of crazy? Anyways, so it was really just me just overthinking that and then going into the verses and talking about [how] I moved 400 miles away from the people I love, the people that I want to be around 24/7 in this attempt to make them proud, when they've been proud of me the whole time. I'm missing out, trying to make them proud. I'm missing out on watching my nieces grow up. It was just that frustration. There was a lot of frustration around that and watching the world and how much bad was in it when I just want to do good, but I don't know how to do good [and] to really help the world. Bringing Ashley and Tenille, it compounded all these feelings I felt around it, because both of them had been in similar situations and they both understood. That song, it still makes me cry on the second verse. I cry every time.

Really? Still? After all this time?


Wow. That's so amazing.

Now I cry because I hear Tenille and Ashley. This sounds kind of funny, but right after I wrote it, I used to drive around when I was really sad and I'd listen to it and just cry, because it just let me cry. Because there's so many days where I was so worn out and so tired and all I wanted to do was call my family, but I didn't have any voice to call or it was already so late, they were in bed by the time I got off of work.

That was my least favorite thing to say was “Sorry, I'm working. I can't talk today.” I hated saying it. I was like, “Why is it that I keep saying it?” I would just bawl my eyes out at that second verse. Now I cry because it's Tenille and Ashley. I've found a beautiful friendship in both of those women through making the song and us just getting back together all the time. I was just with Ashley the past two nights. All these songs just means so much to me.

It's amazing because I guess the premise of the record is about how you don't regret anything. Bad things happen, but you've learned to overcome it. You've come through it, you can see the positivity in all these situations. It can be really hard to remember to be positive at the time when you're living that story before it's been written. I can imagine looking back at those times now through these songs might present a few different meanings and perspectives for you now?

Yeah. It's so crazy. Every time I sing “Today I Turned 23” and I'm 26 now… It's taken three years for me to get that song where it needed to be and get me where I needed to be for the world to hear it. So it is a wild journey when you look at it in a linear fashion of time, but many of the songs have changed in what they mean. ‘Family Tree’ first started as a flagship and now it feels like a reunion song on stage. I played my very first shows for a very small crowd, all of it socially distanced, and I was nervous. It was my first show back in front of anyone since March. My last show was in London. So we played that and it was so beautiful. It was so beautiful to finally get to connect in a room with other human beings, but getting to go up there and sing ‘Family Tree’ and they're singing all along, everyone in the room knew the words and sang along, that's a cool feeling. Because this isn't a number one, but it was still a song that people knew and they don't know what that means [to me]. You don't know what that means. You don't know what it means when you're out in a crowd and you're smiling and you're waving and you're dancing and you're singing along whether you know the words or not. Seeing people enjoy themselves to something that you've worked so hard on to share is just the most fulfilling thing that you can feel. I hope that when people get back to shows that they know just go crazy. We want that. We cannot wait for it.

Country music is inherently, it's about stories, right? It's about telling stories from our lives. It's about sharing stories, whether it's your own, or sometimes as you said, speaking for other people as well if they don't have their own voice. Do you think it's an important step in becoming a country music lyricist to be able to tell those stories and to be able to tell them in a way that you're giving enough space for other people to maybe insert their own family tree into Family Tree, for example?

Yeah. I tried to be able to tell my own family story and my own personal stories, but still be able to open it up in certain places so that you could put your family in, to put your story in a little bit so that you could really immerse yourself.

It's been such a wild journey to get to write this album and then see it come together in the way that it has during the world being the way it is. But I think it's perfect. I think it's all lined up the way it should because now it gives people time to digest it.

I hope that people can sit down and listen to this album from top to bottom and just digest it, listen through, look up the lyrics. I love when people look up the lyrics. I can't tell you how giddy I get when a girl post a selfie and it's like, “Raised a Little Hell When She Raised a Little Redhead.” I'm like, “Yes! Yes!”

The big takeaway from it is trusting the process, right? Trusting that sometimes things aren't in your control and you just gotta get through it. Have you always managed to think that way?

No, I'm hard headed! I think God had to slap me in the head a lot for me to finally understand, “Okay, well, this will be a little easier to handle if I trust you and have faith in you and let you handle it for me,” instead of me thinking I can control the world because I can't, as I figured out.

As much as we try!

I feel like it's almost like a big old name tag I'm putting on before I go on stage. It's my name tag into the world and into the country music industry. I needed to be able to make sure every single song on the record, [that] I got to write it and produce it. I also wanted to make sure there's a true story behind every song. For the first record, I needed to make sure like, “Hey! Everything you're hearing, if you're like, whoa, that's a wild line that she made up.” Nope, probably not. I wanted to make sure that they know there are a few things that I enhance or I'll do a play on words and there's a reason or an inside joke behind it that I'd love to explain. I can't wait for people to dive into it so that I can go in and go, okay, right here? This is a funny play on words. Did you catch this? I want to dive in line by line and I'm like, I don't think people enjoy that as much as the creator does.