Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Natalie Hemby and Ryan Hurd

Natalie Hemby – Pins and Needles

One of the Highwomen and a key part of Miranda Lambert’s songwriting gang, Natalie put out her debut album Puxico in 2017 on the GetWrucke label, named after her married name (producer Mike Wrucke is Mr Natalie Hemby). The big song on that album was This Town Still Talks About You, but it mostly went under the radar because country radio didn’t push it; it is notoriously unkind to women over the age of 35.

The pre-released tunes from this second album include the title track, a wonderful groove about love and stuff written with her pals Brothers Osborne, and the soaring Sheryl Crow-like Heroes, which opens the album. Conversely, Radio Silence is a chilling track about the difficulties in a relationship which paints the narrator as on the outside looking in.

New Madrid has Natalie singing near the top of her range about ‘the rift between us’ over a decent sonic bed, pronouncing the word ‘Mad-rid’ (as in angry). Lake Air shares the mood of Little Big Town’s recent work, as befits a songwriter like Natalie who can explore human relationships and deep emotion: ‘We were silhouettes, ghosts in the rain/ Every single word felt like a day’. I also like the metaphor on Pinwheel, ‘my head’s spinning, tilting on the whirl’, and the elegiac closing track Last Resort, which has a beautiful chorus and lyrics about shelters falling without warning.

Natalie has roped in some friends to help write songs for the album. Fellow Highwoman Maren Morris was in the room for Heart Condition, which has one of the album’s best choruses. Banshee (‘please leave my love alone’) and It Takes One To Know One were written with Miranda: the former has a spooky intro with whistling and a wordless middle section, while the latter has an unabashed pop chorus. Hardest Part About Business (‘is minding your own!), written with Sunny Sweeney, is driven by handclaps, Natalie’s double-tracked vocals and a banjo lick.

The album won’t be as heralded as Miranda’s, but it does show Natalie as a top songwriter who is finding an audience with some great songs in varied styles.

Ryan Hurd – Pelago

Mr Maren Morris, as he is forever known, has been knocking around as a singer/songwriter for several years, with tunes like To A T, Every Other Memory and Diamonds or Twine. All three of those songs are tacked onto the end of Pelago, Ryan’s debut album, which showcases his singing, songwriting and vocal prowess.

Ryan moved to Nashville to write songs, and was often in the room with Maren Morris before she blew up as a performer. Indeed, Ryan’s album opens with the pretty Pass It On, written with and featuring vocals from Maren as well as the hot-right-now Michael Hardy. The sunny optimism of the tune is very Kenny Chesney, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan opens up for him next year. There is a C2C-sized gap in his tour dates, so expect to see him in the UK in March, crossing fingers.

It wouldn’t be his first visit: I caught him in London in 2018 in the All Bar One space playing tunes including You Look Good, which he wrote for Lady A. I don’t remember it but Ryan has been playing Chasing After You since 2017, a song which is on the album and which was a single that is now in the top ten at country radio. It is on course to get to number one and also to win a CMA Award, although Ryan didn’t write it.

Elsewhere on the album, sunniness can also be found on the singalong jam Coast, the reminiscin’ tune June July August and Palm Trees in Ohio. Ryan must have written hundreds of variations on the ‘I love you’ theme and this last one is probably one of his best, expressing the distance of his love until the elements stop working (‘when the Great Lakes run out of water’). I also like the line ‘there ain’t no way we can be platonic’, on the song of that name, though the chorus (‘oh yeah, hey girl’) is a bit immature for a man who is better suited to an older demographic.

Conversely, Ryan puts on a brave face on the strings-augmented Tab With My Name On It, while What Are You Drinking turns the bro-country trope on its head, as Ryan wonders whether his ex is on the wine or tequila, champagne or Tanqueray. It’s Adult Contemporary country produced immaculately by Ryan’s buddy Aaron Eshuis. Ditto I Never Said I’m Sorry, a triple-time tune full of penpics of a ruined relationship.

If I Had Two Hearts – ‘I’d let you break that one too’ just so his heartbreak can cease – sounds like contemporary country and could have been put on hold by any major-label act. It’s no surprise that Ryan’s A-list buddies Randy Montana and Will Weatherly, who are both often found in the brackets as songwriters, were in the room with him.

Ryan’s connections serve him well on The Knife or the Hatchet, a ballad written with Nicolle Galyon, Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins, who have all written with Maren too. Dierks Bentley had it on hold for ages but it reverts back to Ryan, who begs to be put out his miserable relationship and for the blow to be delivered either with the twist of a knife or a hatchet buried. This is proper songwriting by four A-Listers.

The two sides are brought together with melodic Shane McAnally co-write Hell Is An Island (‘without you’), where Ryan escapes from his ex by flying South, but not even sunshine can take his mind off her. Even the ‘strawberry daquiris’ remind him of the first time the pair met. Listen out for the autotune in the middle section!

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