If Caylee Hammack could travel back in time, she’d grab a copy of her debut album, If It Wasn’t for You, and head to her small Georgia hometown in December of 2010 to show the project to her 16-year-old self.
That was the month that a health scare came along, upending all her dreams of pursuing a career in country music. “A doctor told me I had Stage II cancer in this two-pound tumor in my back,” Hammack remembers.
Thankfully, a month later, that diagnosis turned out to be incorrect.
“It was a benign tumor after all. It just showed signs of advancing like a cancerous one,” the singer continues. “And anyways, what it did that month — I thought everything was over. I thought, ‘Life doesn’t last forever.’ I just remember how dark I was, and I’ll be honest: I thought God hated me.”
If It Wasn’t for You is an open book on Hammack’s life; navigating the ups and downs of her story in heartfelt emotional detail. “Small Town Hypocrite” tells the story of the boyfriend for whom she gave up a music scholarship in Nashville, only to have him break up with her and move into a trailer with a new love interest and three kids.
Each song on the record was forged from the honesty and openness the singer learned, both through her health scare and through the other trials she faced along the road to becoming an artist.
For example, “Family Tree” — the leading single off of If It Wasn’t for You — was the first track Hammack produced for the record, and it set an important precedent about how she wanted to make her music. At the time, her publisher suggested that Hammack team up with a producer to work on a few songs, and threw out some names of widely respected industry veterans. But Hammack had other ideas.
“Every time I go in the studio with a big, knowledgeable, acclaimed [producer], I somehow get lost in between the vocal booth and the sound board. It feels like my heart and soul get lost in the production,” she explains. “And I said, ‘I wanna co-produce everything I’m making from now on.’”
That meant she’d need to choose a producer who was a little less established, but Hammack saw that as a good thing. “My thought was, how amazing would it be if this album gets to be my major-label debut album, and it also means just as much to the producer?” she reasons.
And so she went into the studio to cut “Family Tree” with Mikey Reaves, a friend and close collaborator who would go on to work with Hammack throughout the rest of the album. Appropriately enough, Hammack had met Reaves first when they co-wrote a song called “Mean Something,” which is now If It Wasn’t for You’s tenth track.
Hammack hung onto that song throughout the recording process. She knew it was special, but she also knew it was missing something.
“Me and Mikey and the team went back and forth, like, ‘This is a great song, it really does mean something and we need to put it out.’ [And I was like], ‘Yeah, but the bridge, the bridge, the bridge. The bridge isn’t right,’” she says.
So they brought in Tenille Townes and Ashley McBryde, two of Hammack’s peers and former tourmates, to harmonize on the bridge. “I finally realized that the song wasn’t finished because I needed them on it,” the singer continues. “Without their voices, it wasn’t gonna be complete. It really was this little moment with God, where I realized, ‘Okay, I just need to be patient. You are gonna complete this for me through these two women, so thank you.’ And it was magical.”
Townes and McBryde weren’t the only guest artists on the album — along with Reba McEntire also appears on the project’s “Redhead” — but it was important to Hammack to enlist the help of her musical peers as well as her idols. Townes and McBryde are two of the artists who’ve been at Hammack’s side as they rose through the country music ranks together, and have been her champions during low moments in her career when she needed them most.
The first time Hammack met Townes was when the two were bunkmates during a songwriting retreat in 2017 — the first Hammack attended where she was billed as an artist, not a songwriter. Just a day after she arrived, though, she got a call from a neighbor saying her house was on fire. As her team scrambled to find her a flight back to Nashville, she went out to the patio of the beach house where they were staying, sat down on the floor and cried.
“And Tenille walks out and just holds me,” Hammack remembers. “Literally just sits down on the floor with me and holds me. It’s so hot. We’re sweating. I’m crying. She’s crying. She went out of her way to show me, like, ‘I know you’re surrounded by strangers, but I’m here for you.’”
Like her partnership with Mikey, Hammack’s musical relationship with her duet partners came out of real friendship and camaraderie, and a shared passion for musical storytelling. Her relationships have gotten her to where she is today — and Hammack includes her relationship with her fans in that count. That’s why she decided to title her record If It Wasn’t for You.
“I finished this album, and I realized, these are all stories of my life,” she explains.
“I kinda hate calling them my ‘fans’. I kinda hate that word. But I wanted to show them that if they weren’t willing to listen, I couldn’t do this. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be able to put my stories out in some tangible way. I wouldn’t be able to put my dreams on paper.”
In the end, all those hardships — the boyfriends that broke her heart, the deferred dreams, the cancer scare — made this album possible. “God sent me the obstacles and blessings who made me who I am,” Hammack adds. “And really, this album is dedicated to anyone who’s listening.”