Song Review: Caylee Hammack, “Family Tree”

Okay, I’m confused: What exactly is this song supposed to be?

Caylee Hammack is a Georgia native who hit the Nashville scene five years ago, but only scored a full-fledged record deal with UMG’s Capitol label last November. Her official debut single “Family Tree” is scheduled to hit radio next week, but after a few spins, it’s hard to believe it will leave much of an impact. There are some definite flashes of talent here, especially in Hammack’s songwriting, but the song forces her a bit too far from her comfort zone and suffers from a serious mismatch of sound and topic, leaving the track feeling awkward and forgettable overall.

The production opens with a serious old-school revival with a prominent organ and some choir-repeated hooks, but it quickly pivots to featuring a synthetic snap track while some guitars and keyboards stand around deep in the background. The chorus tries to split the difference by bringing back the organ and choir and adding some real drums, but the mix maintains the feels of a slick, sterile dance track that’s about as bad a fit for the lyrics as you could possibly imagine. The writing is trying to paint some amusing pictures about the narrator’s crazy family and inject a little personality into the song, but the uptempo rhythm and prominent groove and screaming at the listener to get out on the dance floor and forget about all that family stuff. Slow the tempo down and give the instruments some texture, and you might have had a fun-yet-reflective song that celebrates the weirdness of family, but this sound gets the song stuck between making the listener move and making them think, and in the end the listener isn’t moved to do either.

Hammack’s voice falls somewhere between Miranda Lambert and Faith Hill, though which star you hear depends on where the song tries to push Hammack. She sounds far more comfortable and Hill-like on the choruses, where she can unleash her power and really infuse her delivery with some soul, but on the verses the song pushes her far below her effective range, causing her to occasionally bottom out and lose all semblance of tone and power. Thankfully, Hammack never loses her earnestness and delivers her lines with the aural equivalent of a raised eyebrow, appearing to be alternatively amused and bemused by the antics of her kin. Overall, she comes across as both believable and relatable, but isn’t quite able to move the audience beyond laughing at her relatives and towards her ultimate message of blood being thicker than water. It’s okay, but it’s not terribly catchy, which is a problem when you’re fighting for people’s attention on the radio.

What really bugs me about how lukewarm this song feels is that it feels lukewarm despite some of the most impressive writing I’ve heard in quite a while. The lyrics here are basically an improved version of Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown,” with a focus on family ties instead of rural glorification. The level of wit and detail on the verses, from the sister’s tobacco smell to the mother’s Tupperware party to the father sleeping through the halftime stats to the laugh-out-loud Maytag dryer anecdote (I won’t spoil it for you; you have to hear it for yourself) are top-notch, and while the chorus and bridge are a bit more generic, they do enough to support the hook and the overall message of family. They’re the sort of lyrics that demand to be paid attention to, making the distraction of the production even more annoying because they keep the writing from leaving the sort of impact that it could have.

“Family Tree” is a decent tree that is heavily weighted down by some questionable decision with the sound and style. The bouncy production and heartfelt lyrics seem to operate at cross-purposes with one another and try to take the song in two different directions, all while pushing Caylee Hammack’s vocals in the wrong direction and not allowing her to sell the track to the best of her ability. There’s definitely enough here to interest me in hearing more from Hammack, but this song is such a mess that I likely won’t remember its existence in another few months. If UMG and Capitol really want to break Hammack into the mainstream, they need to make sure everyone involved in on the same page first.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way for this one.