Other Roads: Puxico's Tom Hemby --- Award-Winning Nashville Session Guitarist
Once upon a time in Puxico, Missouri, an eager little 12-year-old accepted a unique challenge from his father. “You know that record you keep playing all the time?” the father asked, referring to a now-forgotten side by the great Chet Atkins. The boy said yes. The father replied that if the boy could learn to play it himself on the father’s guitar, he would buy the boy a brand new instrument of his very own.
A few days later, young Tom Hemby was holding his own sleek new Gibson SG—the slim, solid-body electric affair that would take him to a whole new level of discovery on the instrument that had captured his imagination.
Twelve years later, Hemby would embark upon a madly busy career that would see him touring, then primarily recording, with the likes of Glen Campbell, Amy Grant, Yolanda Adams, Michael W. Smith, Chaka Khan, Garth Brooks, The Gaither Vocal Band, Kenny Loggins, Wynonna Judd, Israel & New Breed, Faith Hill, Brian McKnight, Andy Williams, and BeBe and CeCe Winans. To date, Hemby has garnered a producing Grammy and four Dove Awards, including one for 2004’s Instrumental Album of the Year, An Acoustic Christmas with Tom Hemby.
In truth, the 12-year-old Hemby had been a fairly decent bet for that new guitar from the beginning. It didn’t hurt matters that he had been picking away from the age of 7, when his hands were so small that his father, an avid amateur guitarist, had at first fixed him up with a mandolin. It didn’t hurt that, at 10 or 11, young Tom had begun working in earnest with his father’s acoustic guitar, on which the elder Hemby had taught him “some chords”, as Tom remembers it. It didn’t hurt either that from the earliest, Tom Hemby had found himself mesmerized by the elegant, lightning-fast fingerwork of the legendary Atkins—and that he’d determined early on to unlock whatever secrets he could of the great man’s technique.
“I heard Chet Atkins and thought two people were playing. I said, ‘I gotta learn what he’s doing!'”
With a spanky new Gibson all his own, it wasn’t long before Hemby was deconstructing Atkins, playing in church, playing in the Puxico High School band, and performing in a rock band at the same time.
Hemby attended Three Rivers Community College until the drive to play and perform propelled him north to central Illinois, where he reconnected with The Baxters, a family of singers with whom he’d performed in the past. It was in Atlanta, Illinois, that Hemby met Deanna, his wife of 32 years, and there they made their home.
In 1978, after just a few years in this lesser-known Atlanta, Hemby learned that gospel-singing sensation The Imperials would appear one night at nearby Lincoln Christian College. The life-changing twist that followed could not have been improved upon by a dozen of the hottest Hollywood screenwriters.
“There was a group of local musicians at the concert,” said Hemby, “and at the intermission, one guy told me about auditions the Imperials were holding for a guitarist. [Founding member] Armond Morales had me come up after the concert to audition, and the next thing I knew I was moving to Nashville”.
Since then, this self-described “hairy-legged country boy” has done virtually non-stop session work on guitar and other stringed instruments for a staggering number of artists. While touring no longer makes up a large part of his work life, Nashville-based opportunities for live performance keep Hemby mindful of the musician’s potential for “touching people’s hearts—you can lose touch with that if you spend too much time in the studio.”
Hemby’s two exciting new solo efforts exhibit the depth and scope of his many musical influences. He’s just released the all-acoustic Chasing the Wind, an eclectic bundle of tracks that range from finger-pickin’-funky, to low-key-laid-back, to just plain bluesy, with a healthy dash of south-of-the-border seasoning in spots for good measure. The CD’s mellow, shimmering “Mingo Rain” was so named because the piece reminded Hemby of Puxico’s Mingo Wildlife Refuge on a rainy day.
Hemby’s other CD project will be wrapped up this fall, with the result to be available “after the first of the year”, according to the artist. The completed CD will include contributions from some or all of the following musicians: Christopher Cross, Amy Grant, Bill Champlin, Michael McDonald, bass man Marcus Miller, and hardy perennial Donna Summer.
What’s Tom Hemby doing live these days? Well, the Tom Hemby Band is “a bunch of studio guys” playing jazz fusion in the Nashville area, and Hemby’s also in the 12-piece tribute band Twelve Against Nature, dedicated to classics from the Steely Dan songbook. A second tribute band, Soul Cages, features Tom and brother Ron Hemby (a one-time Imperial, who Hemby says “got all the vocal chops” between the two of them). Soul Cages plays hits from Sting and The Police.
Southbound travelers take note! Soul Cages will appear at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley Bar and Grill in November (stay tuned to 3rd’s calendar for coming details), while Twelve Against Nature will perform at the same venue on December 1.
Mastering the guitar, once “almost an obsession” for a certain young boy from Puxico, evolved into a full-bodied living, indeed into a way of life. What does Tom Hemby make of his ongoing musical journey, of the inner drive and the labor that have brought him to the present day? “I just believe that the talents I have are God-given gifts, and I’m just trying to be the best steward of those talents that I can.”
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