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Little Big Town’s Little Secret: Natalie Hemby & Barry Dean on Writing Country Hits

Creative Nation's Natalie Hemby and Barry Dean discuss writing some of country's biggest hits.

In a recent interview, legendary singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin praised the work of Natalie Hemby, who has scored with hits such as “Downtown” (Lady Antebellum) and “Drinks After Work” (Toby Keith) and is in the running for a CMA Song of the Year trophy for “Automatic.” How does that make her feel?

“It’s very humbling,” Hemby told Billboard. “Anytime you hear encouraging words from people like that, it’s always humbling.” Despite her successes, Hemby said she’s just proud to be at the dance. “Sometimes, I still feel like I’m a fourth-grader, and I got invited to the high school prom. I try not to take myself too seriously. I do what I do because I like it, and I love songs.”


Hemby and Barry Dean are two of Nashville’s most prolific storytellers of the past decade — and two of the reasons that Creative Nation continues to thrive as one of the city’s top publishers.

Having tried her hand at songwriting full-time a few years ago, Hemby couldn’t seem to make a connection and wound up working in marketing at Comcast. However, she wasn’t meant to be behind the desk. The Wilkinsons cut “L.A.,” which was her first cut, and then in 2008, Lee Ann Womack recorded her song “The Bees.” It’s a moment that she will always remember.

“I didn’t have a publishing deal, and I was working at Comcast. I had just read The Secret Life of Bees after my grandmother passed away, so I was coming from a very personal place as well as being inspired by the book. I never thought another thing about it. Then, Lee Ann cut it, and Keith Urban sang with her on the song. I was so overjoyed.”

Hemby has four cuts on Pain Killer, the forthcoming set from Little Big Town. She said that seeing her name in the liner copy never gets old.

“It still means everything, because it didn’t happen for me that quick. If it ever becomes where I brush it off like an everyday thing, I don’t deserve it. I get excited and still buy my own copy. That’s what you work so hard for, and it’s not easy to get because there are so many people trying to get the same thing.”

One of her greatest songwriting memories was collaborating with one of her idols, Sheryl Crow. “It was so funny because the first time I wrote with her, I was so nervous, and we really didn’t get anything. When we met for a second time, I told her, ‘I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but you’re my writing/artist hero. I wanted to be you, basically.’ She said, ‘Aw, stop it.’ Sheryl Crow doesn’t really understand that she’s Sheryl Crow. She’s so down to earth and kind. She was telling me, ‘I remember the first time I wrote with my hero — Stevie and I … ,’ and I thought, ‘You wrote with Stevie Nicks!’ They say don’t meet your heroes, but I’m glad I met mine.”

Always creating, Hemby — who just signed with Creative Nation — is excited about her newest project. “I just finished a documentary on my grandparents’ hometown in Puxico, Mo. I’m going to try to get it in the Nashville Film Festival. I wrote all the music for that. I wanted to tell the story of how you make a town or your childhood not disappear.”

For Barry Dean, his writing career began to take a turn as he was about to ink his first writers’ deal. “My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and my grandfather was caring for her. I realized that he saw her as she was when he met her. He didn’t see her in the condition she was. I was really moved by that and wrote about two-thirds of that song by myself in Kansas. Universal’s David Conrad came over to listen to tempo, and he heard it, and took it and played it for Reba [McEntire].”

The song, “Moving Oleta,” appeared on McEntire’s 2003 disc Room to Breathe. Dean recalls that he was touched by Buddy Cannon‘s willingness to let his family in on the moment. “Buddy Cannon — who produced it with Norro Wilson, let me hear it and even let me bring my family down from Kansas so I could play it for them. It was such an imposition on his part to do that for me, but I will never forget that.”

Since then, Dean has penned hits such as “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) — co written with Hemby and Luke Laird — and “1994” (Jason Aldean). But it’s songs like the McEntire cut and “God’s Will,” a 2004 hit for Martina McBride, that made him rethink how he should approach his writing.

“That was mostly about my daughter, who was born with special needs, and dealing with that. It’s actually torn out of my journal, and Tom Douglas (the co-writer) helped to shape all of that. That cemented for me the idea that I was going to have to be a hard writer. If it was funny, I was going to do what I thought was funny, and if it was serious, I would be serious. I would write more from the heart than the head.”

Writing for Creative Nation allows him to continue his writing association with composers such as Laird, whom he has developed a winning combination with, as well as a strong friendship. “I was signed to BMG and then to Universal. Luke and I started writing together there. We just enjoyed every day of the creative process. So when they were starting the company, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it.”

Is Dean a “chart-watcher”? He said he tries not to be — however, it wasn’t always that way. “I have done it that way. For me, it’s very unhealthy. You worry about things you can’t control. With ‘God’s Will,’ I watched it really close, because I had never been around it. When ‘Pontoon’ came out, I didn’t. I made a conscious decision to keep working, and they would tell me the good news. The last two weeks I got into it, though,” he said with a smile.