Caylee Hammack‘s debut album is heavy with heartbreak songs but a delicate, nuanced vocal about family might best tell her story, and your story. “Sister” is the song the “Family Tree” singer says was the most difficult to get through at every stage of creation.
“I cried like a little girl when I wrote it, to be completely honest,” Hammack says during a Zoom chat. She’s seated, leg up, in an emerald green armchair, in front of a small home studio rig. Several well-loved houseplants drip vines over the equipment that frames her as she stares off to the right with folded hands and wet eyes, telling a story as difficult as any she’s lived through — and she’s lived through a few.
If It Wasn’t for You (Aug. 14) is her debut album on Capitol Records Nashville, but the seed of her career as an artist came two weeks after a house fire that left her with next to nothing. The savage blaze came as Hammack’s life was on an upswing; in fact, she was on a writing retreat that very weekend. Childhood cancer, temporary homelessness upon moving to Nashville and, yes, a devastating breakup all make songs like “Forged in the Fire” and “Gold” far more fact than fiction. With nothing to lose, she let a persistent manager take her on as an artist. There was nothing to lose.
Family is extremely important to Hammack, and she speaks of hers with love. That flutter in her voice? The 26-year-old jokes that it may come from being brought up on so much Dolly Parton and Lee Ann Womack as a little girl in Ellaville, Ga. Her love of gospel music and the faith that’s guiding her through 2020? Grandma’s small-town church laid down the first stones for her relationship with God to stand on.
“There have been so many days where I get so deep down in the darkness of like, ‘What if this album doesn’t do what I want? What if people don’t connect? What if people don’t listen?’ All the doubts and stuff,” Hammack says. “And then I sit there and I look up and I realize this is a beautiful day and, ‘You get to spend this day at home. You get to go and talk to your plants and water them and watch them grow and yeah, this may not be the life you anticipated this year … but you are alive and you’re breathing and you’re getting to do what you love.’
“I have to sometimes look up and talk to God to remember, ‘Actually I am very blessed.’”
Hammack’s debut single “Family Tree” served as a biography of sorts, mentioning an older sister who smoked all the Camels in town. “Sister” explores Hammack’s relationship with that sister, recalling shared secrets and sweaters and how they’d lean into one another when times were tough. It’s a message the singer says she couldn’t have delivered without music.
“When I was in the age when baby fat was prominent,” Hammack recalls of Mollie, eight years her senior, “she was beautiful. She was the most beautiful woman at school. I just remember she would come home and be so upset about how she looked and stuff but she’d always tell me I was beautiful. But I was like, ‘But you’re the most beautiful woman.’”
“My sister and I were so close as kids,” she says, “but then life just ripped us apart.”
“Sister, when did you make yourself lonely / Thinking you ain’t got nobody / You got me, you got me.”
Mollie moved away, as people do. That’s where the disconnect started. Hammack says she felt her sister was isolating and an emotional chasm grew that phone calls and airlines couldn’t bridge. Not until later, after the singer recognized herself doing the same exact thing, did she figure it all out for a song.
“I just wanted to reach out to my sister, that’s why that song was written,” Hammack says.
Blood is thicker than water / It’ll keep each other from ever going under.
The story has a happy ending, as Mollie now lives back home in Georgia and the two sisters are close once again. Sibling songs are special in country music, and surprisingly rare given how universal that relationship is. The song may never be a radio single, and with a pandemic, Hammack may not get to perform it live in 2020, but that’s OK.
“My main goal, what I really want it to do? I just want it to connect,” Hammack, a 2019 Taste of Country RISERS act, says. A sibling’s tears serve as strong evidence that a connection has been made.
Watch Caylee Hammack Perform “Family Tree”:
LOOK: 17 Songs From Women You Need to Hear