Who Is Caylee Hammack? An Unwavering Artist Forged in Fire
Caylee Hammack has made a special request of the universe: "Please, just make me different."
Growing up in Ellaville, Ga., Hammack always felt like an outsider in the tiny map dot town with a population just shy of 2,000. While she loved her family and the people there, she never felt there was a "slot" for her and was constantly yearning for a way out. With a fear of a white picket fence life, she had a deep desire for a life different than the one she saw around her. An avid reader as a child, Hammack always knew she wanted a life as captivating as the stories she read.
"I just kept praying, 'Just give me one of those lives that people read a book about. Give me a life that I would read about, give me an exciting one,'" expresses the newest member of the 2019 Taste of Country RISERS class. "Different to me is standing on the other side of what normality is, it's being odd, though you may get odd looks. Different to me is forging your own path with no thought as to what is everyone else doing. It's doing what you feel like in your heart of hearts you want to do."
For Hammack, music was the superpower that made her different. Introduced to a vast range of musical influences at a young age, her older brother played Southern rock acts such as Blackfoot on their car ride to school, while her sister blasted Britney Spears on the way home. But Hammack — a self-described "old soul" — discovered the classic country of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash on her own.
"I love the storytellers. I love the people that had something to say," she says of the artists who shaped her. She recalls watching an infomercial selling a tin can of the golden country classics for $24.99, begging her parents to buy it for her, listening to every song to the point where she wore out the set. She was later inspired by the women of '90s country and groups like the Dixie Chicks and SHeDAISY, admitting that her parents, "never had a moment of silence again" after she got a Shania Twain karaoke machine.
She set her sights on Nashville and finally got that golden ticket when she earned a scholarship to Belmont University. But when her boyfriend at the time convinced her to stay in Ellaville with him, she took her dreams and "put them in a box," she recalls. He ended up cheating on her, but their breakup re-ignited the fire in her to pursue her musical passions.
"Finally I kind of realized that love has always hurt me, yet music never has, and I couldn't realize why is it that I kept turning my back on the thing that didn't hurt me for the thing that did. Finally I just decided, 'Well, screw love, I want my dreams,'" she admits with a laugh.
Hammack packed her belongings into trash bags and made the 399-mile drive to Music City with only her dog and Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer Different Park to keep her company. While music was the pinnacle dream, there's a strong sense of confidence the singer exudes when she says the true goal she was driving toward was a success story.
"I'm so scared of failing, and that drove me," she says determined, categorizing returning home before accomplishing her dreams as failure. "The one thing I kept thinking, and I think the reason why I cried so much on the seven-hour drive to Nashville from my hometown, was 'I can't go back until I'm something. Once you make it to Nashville, you just can't come back until you've made something of yourself.'"
Her first step toward "making it" was getting a fake ID so she could perform weekly at Honky Tonk Central on Broadway. She cut her teeth in downtown bars, balancing late night gigs with early morning co-writing sessions that taught her how to be an honest songwriter. But Hammack got her first taste of struggle when after a few nights' stay at a shady motel, she had burned through the $1,000 she spent years saving up for and found herself living out of her car in a Target parking lot.
The singer and now skilled writer eventually got herself back on her feet, signing a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group. But tragedy struck again when, during a writers' retreat at the beach, she got a phone call from her neighbor in Nashville breaking the news that her apartment had burned down due to an electrical fire. That resulted in the loss of 70 percent of her possessions.
An eternal optimist, Hammack was grateful that her dog, friends and treasured mementos made it out safely — she says the crisis taught her how loved she was, as many of her friends and peers stepped into help.
"My parents raised me to be strong, yet vulnerable, and they raised me showing me that it was alright to cry, it's alright to show emotion, it's alright to be weak, it's okay to rely on others. And that's been a very hard lesson for me to learn," she confesses. "But I'm getting better at it."
It's this cast of characters that make up the family that inspired her debut single "Family Tree." The song introduces us to Hammack's mother, a "busy-bee homebody" who's always cooking for the people she loves (she scolded the singer when the song came out, adamantly denying that she's ever burned chicken); her father, a hard worker with the skills to build the creations he sees in his mind, but still falls asleep in his armchair when the game is on; and a sister she calls an "energy ball" whose smoking habit made for a "perfect little moment" in the song when the cashier at the convenience store told her they were sold out of Camels. She also has a brother she says has made a significant impact at the local high school, where he teaches science. She laughs as she explains why he doesn't have a line in the song — he's "too normal" and "too nice."
"I'm surrounded continually by people that are smiling," she says of her close-knit kin. "I tried to just encapsulate all the things about my family that sometimes will make me roll my eyes, but will also make me laugh. The things that are kind of their funny little quirks, I tried to put into the song."
The Georgia native's identity begins to take shape in "Family Tree," her voice soaring over a warm melody and clever lyrics that reference Tupperware parties, getting "high school high" before a potluck lunch and a sister who smoked all the Camels in the county. The rising star describes her sonic identity as "always evolving," telling her story in a distinctly personal way.
"Right now, my sonic sound is a blend of truthfulness and confetti," she analyzes. "The sounds in my head are not always pretty and they're not always simple. I think that sonically, the complex parts explain me better than the simple parts."
This all ties in to what makes Hammack different, a facet fans will hear more of on her upcoming debut album, for which she serves as co-producer. The project includes a song called "Forged in the Fire" that stems from a piece of wisdom her father shared about how the strongest (and most beautiful) elements are formed in fire. Hammack correlates this with the fire that destroyed her home, but was the catalyst to the good fortune she found in the ash, including her manager and demos that turned into songs for the album.
With the fire in her voice matching the one in her soul, Hammack embodies the phoenix she sings about. "I definitely feel like a phoenix right now," she says. "I feel like that symbolizes my rise."
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