Caylee Hammack is one of the artists in Country music that has a huge buzz around her right now.
With singles such as Small Town Hypocrite, Family Tree and Redhead featuring Reba McEntire grabbing attention, Caylee is gearing up to release her debut album If It Wasn’t For You, which was produced by Mikey Reaves.
I caught up with Caylee recently to talk about the record, discuss finding her voice and sound, and to find out what it was like to work with Reba McEntire…
Your debut album If It Wasn’t For You is such a mixture of sounds and styles. How did you manage to pull this labour of love together?
It was most definitely a labour of love. It kind of felt like a passion project for me, my management and my label. It has been such a roller coaster but such a beautiful one. For the past two and a half years I’ve been working on this thing. The catalyst for it was (that in) 2017 I had a house fire and I lost pretty much everything. My manager met me a few weeks later and I told her it was perfect though. It worked out how it should because I was terrified to step into the artist footsteps instead of just being a staff writer and writing all this stuff and getting to produce it. When you step out like that you’re finally giving people the ability to critique you and to form you, that stuff was what I was afraid of, and why I had ran from any management meeting I’ve ever had.
She finally got me to meet with her and she just was like, ‘I believe in you. I want to work with you. I want to help you make this album’ and I told her ‘you know what, I have literally nothing left to lose. Nothing in this world to lose at this point. Sure, let’s do it’. We started working and she helped me put my life together, and all of the team did. They threw me in the studio and I finished up Family Tree, which was kind of a love project for sure. It was 50/60 hours of me and Mikey sitting in this little studio with no windows and no air conditioning, and just working through it and working through it and working through it, and making a lot of those sounds ourselves. We started off with a song that was so much ourselves and I think that it set this goal I guess, and an outlining of what I wanted every song on this record it be, which was uniquely itself, sonically backing what the lyrical intent was, and I also wanted to make sure that the nitty gritty was not stain pressed out. The honesty stayed true. Through making it I also just had a lot of fun. Picking these songs and finessing them into the sequence that they are was really exciting work and it is really exciting to see how people are connecting to it. I like that you’re able to see the different sides because that was my main goal. I can’t stand an album where every song sounds the same. With every song I wanted to teleport them to a different feeling and a different emotion, and hopefully that’s how it comes across.
Even the opening track Just Friends starts out one way, then takes you in a completely different direction. It also shows off the different sides to your voice is has a classic Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton sound at times but is also incredibly powerful and contemporary. When did you realise you had that voice?
Since I was a little girl. About 13 I started singing and until you’re 18 you can’t sing in bars in the state of Georgia. Certain bars would let me pass because they knew that I had a following and that I could do a show. They let me come in and my dad always had to be there. I couldn’t be drinking, nothing bad, y’know, but I would get to play and that was all I wanted. Doing that for as long as I did, I would have to be singing in church a lot. I would be singing in old Opry houses, which is usually based on an older community, and it’s older musicians and stuff. There was a place I used to play that anything more modern than Tanya Tucker was too modern, that was all considered modern to them so I’d have to grow up singing Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, all of these different people that I truly loved and I became obsessed with a young age, but I would impersonate them. That was how I learned to sing. I would just listen to the radio or buy their CD and until I could sing every single thing they could sing, I wouldn’t stop listening to it. Lee Ann Womack was somebody that I obsessed about until I could do her trills, and then I was like, ‘Okay, next person’. It was really fun music and every time I listened, it felt like it was a learning experience and I was learning how to sing to it.
It took me a few years to really find my voice as an adult, because my whole childhood was impersonating others. That was the only way I could be heard, was singing covers of people. It was around 21/22 when I truly found my voice because that was when I started writing stuff of the calibre that I was excited to actually show it. I was like, ‘Okay, these songs really do relay my message and they feel true and sincere, and definitely more well-written than my songs when I was 16’. That was when I was like, ‘Oh, this is who I am. This is what my voice sounds like when I’m not singing along to someone. This is a whole new song’. That’s when I found it. There’s been many times in my life that I was like, ‘man, I just wish I was younger when I started out. I wish I’d been signed at a younger age…’ I needed to find myself before I was signed, or else I couldn’t have made this so myself. I’m very grateful everything lined up the way it did.
One of the songs that really showcases your voice on this record is Redhead with Reba McEntire. It takes a powerful singer to hold their own against Reba. What was it like recording that with her?
Oh man, that was so cool. We met outside of the House of Blues studio, I’d already done my parts and then she came in. We met outside and she goes, ‘Hey, I’m Reba’ and I was like, ‘I know who you are!’ (laughs). I just love that she still introduced herself outside and we got together and worked on that one. We got to connect for a little bit. She’s such a businesswoman. You’d never want to do Reba wrong or be on her bad side. I feel like when you’re in the industry for 40 years you’re bound to rub off the nicety of your work. Once you do it so many times, they aren’t going to be sweet as sugar every time they walk in is what I’d heard and I was a little nervous. Meeting her, she has this warmth to her that hasn’t been rubbed off by 40 years of hard work. She has this warmth and kindness about her that makes you feel warm and welcome, but she also has this aura that you know she’s in control. She knows what she’s doing and this power that seems to surge around her, I just felt it. Getting to work with her, getting to ask her questions and being able to get her insight on stuff is probably some of the most vital moments I’ve had yet as a young artist.
If you’re gonna learn from somebody, Reba’s a pretty amazing person isn’t she?
Oh, yeah and she had a lot to say about it. She had a lot of great advice. At one point I even asked her, when we were at The Ryman, and I was like, ‘how the hell do you do it?’ I just straight up asked her like, ‘how? How do you do this? 40 years of this and you are Queen Reba. You have not fell. You are still this icon and I know that takes work but I can’t imagine how much. How do you do it? (laughs) How do you not ever burn out? How do you still stay so true to yourself and shine like you do?’ She said, ‘I do stuff like this. I stay in front of folks. I’m kind to folks. I take time to listen. That helps me stay relevant’ and I was just like, ‘wow, that’s what I needed to hear’. She was just like, ‘you show up. You don’t got to be the best around. You don’t have to be perfect. You show up and you do your job the best you can and you get offstage and you’re kind to people’. I just was like, ‘Okay, yeah, all right’.
When you’re doing country music and you’re a young artist on the cusp of releasing a debut album, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you can stumble when you’re trying to step into the footprints that your idols have left behind, and you’re trying to navigate how to work things. When one of those idols is willing to come and step down in the tier of Country music royalty, when they’re willing to help a young artist that hasn’t really gotten to prove herself yet, and is willing to sing with you, it’s like they walk back down the trail and they hold your hand and they’re like, ‘come on, I’m gonna show you how to do it’. It’s just been a blessing. I don’t have enough words to explain what it meant to me that Reba and also Alan Jackson was willing to sing with me.
You’re really crossing off those legends aren’t you?
I’ll be honest. Who would have thought? I told someone the other day that I just wish I could go back in time and tell 16 year old me what’s happening right now because she wouldn’t believe me. I know she wouldn’t. She’d be like, ‘you’re a liar’ (laughs). Who would have imagined? I have been blessed beyond measure and beyond what I believe I deserve, and I’m just so grateful to get to do what I love every day and get to do it with people that made me want to do it in the first place. It’s full circle moments it feels like for me.
On Mean Something you’ve collaborated with Tenille Townes and Ashley McBryde, who of course you worked with and toured with along with Miranda Lambert. The three of you are changing the face of Country music right now. Why did you choose to have them on the record?
Well, first off, I love that you just said that. Honestly, I just love those girls. I love them. They are two of the strongest woman I’ve ever met. One thing I’ve noticed about music, and not just country music every genre it seems, is there’s many reasons why people get into it. Some people want the fame, some people want money, some want the clout that comes with it. Then there’s people that just got into it, because you know that they would die if they didn’t get to do it. If they weren’t able to do it, they’d be a shell of the person they are. They make it because they want it to help the world. They make music because they have to. Those two women, that’s what I feel when I’m around them. When I hear them on stage, when I listen to their records, when we’re drunk singing on my patio on the weekends… I feel something when they play music. Someone asked me about the ACM nomination and said, ‘is it hard getting pitted against one of your close friends Tenille?’ and I was like, ‘no, I’d be pissed if she wasn’t in this group of women because she deserves to be, and if she wins, I might just pee myself from excitement’. I want these women to succeed. In the industry right now, it’s like a old wives tale that there can only really be one big woman at a time and we can only see one person shine at a time. I don’t believe in that at all. I think that music is a big enough pie, especially country music for everybody to get a slice and I want those two women at my table when I’m eating.
They’re the women I want there and they’re the people I want there. If they shine, I shine, it’s that same mentality. I want them to succeed, because I love them and I love their stories, and they’re in it for the right reasons. They want to put good out in the world. That song started this catalyst situation with me and my co-producer with us starting to produce stuff together. We got together to write Means Something and then we were like, ‘hey, do you want to produce some stuff together just for no reason, like on a $500 demo budget, you want to produce Family Tree?’ It happened and that’s the same recording that we did on a $500 demo budget. That’s what went to radio and I think that’s so cool.
I just wanted people I love on this album. At the end when I realised that I’m gonna have Reba, I’m gonna have to Tenille and Ashley, I was like, ‘this is exactly what I wanted. I get to show off the women that make me want to do this music’. Ashley and I get together about weekly now and drink and hang out and sing songs on the back patio. We’re putting together something for our fan clubs right now, of all of us together, just like a little fun little idea. I just love them, man. When you meet good people in this industry, you need to hold on to them. There’s a lot of good people in this industry but when you find people that really connect with you, just hold on to them and be grateful and when they shine you scream for them.
It’s such a shame that your trip to the UK got cut short when you were here to play C2C, which got postponed. Tenille and Ashley have both had big moments in the UK where you knew they had audiences for life after, and I feel that was going to happen for you. Will you be coming back to the UK when it’s safe to do so?
Oh, my god, yes. I love that people are asking me that because you make me want to come even more. It broke my heart to be honest. I didn’t want to come back at all. I even tried to fight and they were like, ‘no, Caylee it would be smart if we got your boys back’ and I was like, ‘okay, all right. Get everybody back. I get it’. We went before the travel ban began and my boys were caught in a different place than home. Man, it took a while for me get over mourning for that. I mourned the tours being lost. In the grand scheme of the world I’ve been blessed and I’m doing okay and I can’t really complain much but it made me feel really bad for the fans in London. They’d been writing me and they were excited about it too, and I hate that through all of this happening, I in result let down some of those fans because they didn’t get to see the show and we didn’t get to connect. This isn’t the only time I’m ever jumping across the pond. Trust me at some point ya’ll probably won’t be able to get rid of me.
You mentioned earlier that obviously you’re putting this record out in the midst of the pandemic. Did you have any reservations about doing that?
Well, what people don’t realise is I had planned last year to release it in April. It was going to be in the middle of the Reba tour. The whole year was shaping up to be a great launch for this album but everything didn’t work out the way it did. When all this happened, the label pulled off. and we all pulled off. We agreed to wait until the world is a little less crazy because right now people need to focus on taking care of each other. I think everyone needed a little break to figure out life and I said, ‘let’s not push this right now. Let’s push it when people are willing to listen and have time to listen’ and so we held it. Finally, in the middle of the summer, I was just like ‘guys we’ve got to. We’ve got to put it out’. Looking back at it now, I think this is when the world needs music. I didn’t know about it at first. I thought, ‘oh, I’ll just wait. I’ll just wait’ but as this drags out in America I want to give people music in a hard time. Who knows, it may stunt the growth of this album and it may stunt the release. Everything is supposed to happen the way it should and I just have to keep telling myself that and if it connects to one person, then it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. If one person gets something out of this album… my music has already done what it needed to do for me. It let me be able to find an outlet and has been a conduit for me to connect to people, and that’s what I wanted. If one person connects to it, then the song itself has done its job. I’ve done my job as a creator, which is to give something that people can connect with and feel. I love music that makes you emote. I want music that makes you feel visceral feelings and different moods. I like to get lost in music so I’m hoping people get lost in mine.
The people I’ve spoken to are loving this album and it’s one of my favourites of the year so far too…
Oh man, I have to tell you I never in my entire life imagined having so much love and support from across the sea. It has always felt like the world is so big so how am I going to get my music out there? How am I going to be able to reach half of America nevermind the world? It has been such a beautiful blessing for me personally to talk to you and get to talk about this album. Y’all have got me more excited about this album than I could have pumped myself up for you. I just want my music to connect people so just that y’all have got excited about it means the world to me.
What’s the one thing that you hope people take away from this record?
When I created this music, I wanted it to be a sonic playground. I wanted it to be a safe place for them and a place where they can feel everything. I wanted songs that they could dance to and feel sexy like King Size Bed. I want songs like Small Town Hypocrite where they can cry about the first love of their life that didn’t work out. I wanted songs like Just Like You that is snarky and standing up for yourself and going, ‘you know what, if you treat me like that, I can treat you like that. I’ll show you what it feels like’. I wanted to just show the different sides. of growing up. This album, honestly, it’s the growing pains of me and my life. I just want people to feel a little less alone when they listen to it.
Caylee Hammack’s debut album If It Wasn’t For You is released on 14th August 2020 via Snakefarm Records. Watch the video for Redhead below: