DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Natalie Hemby has written or co-written No. 1 country hits for such acts as Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town. Her songs have been recorded by some of country's biggest stars, and she's written songs for the TV series "Nashville." Now she has her own album called "Puxico." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRAND RESTORATION")
NATALIE HEMBY: (Singing) Breaking ground, nails to board, demolition of redemption - glory-bound, through the doors, build my heart without condition. I hear it now, oh the sound of...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: One of the striking things about Natalie Hemby's debut album, "Puxico," is it's self-effacement, it's stylistic modesty. You'd think someone who is basically introducing herself to you in song would, you know, sing about herself, couch a good portion of her compositions in the first person.
Instead, Hemby spends much of her time on this album describing geography, physical and emotional. The song that began this review, "Grand Restoration," is in part about appreciating the care that went into building old things, such as houses and towns.
On a song called "Cairo, IL," Hemby describes the landscape of that town and how it can serve as a metaphor for the health or weaknesses of its inhabitants.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAIRO, IL")
HEMBY: (Singing) All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51, and the Lord is coming across the bridge where the old Ohio runs. Don't look away. It will be gone. Kentucky and Missouri - a trinity of states. Nothing's in a hurry except the water in between the rising lakes. Oh, nothing moves but nothing stays. Well, the longing for the leaving and the welcome home receiving joy - still, I'll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois.
TUCKER: When Hemby does write in the first person, she comes at herself from an oblique angle. Take, for example, "I'll Remember How You Loved Me." She deploys a clever strategy - listing all the things about her past that she's going to forget while always remembering how much she was loved by a certain guy. Yet of course, that list of things forgotten is a rich, vivid one - in other words, not forgotten at all but brought to life in the present as she sings it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL REMEMBER HOW YOU LOVED ME")
HEMBY: (Singing) I probably won't recall graduation day or the neighbors up the street in the town where I was raised. The Fox and Jacob houses all dressed up like young cadets, I will forget. It'll slip my memory who was president that year. Like bells on a drug store door, some things just disappear. When I'm sure that I knew exactly how the story went, I will forget.
TUCKER: The title "Puxico" is also the name of a town in Missouri where Hemby's grandfather grew up. The album is country in its rhythms and its sentiments, but most of the time, it sounds like a folk music album filled with acoustic guitar and spare arrangements that frame Hemby's straightforward, no-frills phrasing of her lyrics.
If you know any of Hemby's biggest successes writing for other artists such as Little Big Town's "Pontoon" or Miranda Lambert's "White Liar" - both big, booming power-pop country hits - the relative quiet of "Puxico" might surprise you.
HEMBY: (Singing) The path between a sinner and a church hangs from an honest day's work, hard from a world of hurt, worn. Parks on a wooden floor, steps to an open door, the fabric we fight for - worn. So thin you almost see straight through it, so precious even when it's torn. I find the finer things worth keeping are worn.
TUCKER: This smaller musical scale fits Hemby's contemplative vocals and serves what emerges over the course of the album to be her purpose - to make a connection to her listeners by inviting them to share in her memories. Like the best of this kind of singer-songwriter music, she makes you think for the duration of each song that her warm, colorful memories are your own.
DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, we'll explore the dilemmas presented by some advances in genetic science worthy of science fiction. We'll speak with New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter about the revolutionary gene editing technique called CRISPR, which holds the promise of wiping out diseases like malaria or dengue and raises concerns about its misuse. He says there's never been a more powerful biological tool or one with more potential to both improve the world and endanger it. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.