When she was a little girl growing up in small-town Georgia, Caylee Hammack used to pray to be different. It’s safe to say her prayers were answered.
You can see the “different” in her dramatic mane of red hair, her hippie-meets-disco fashion and her constantly changing eye makeup (current inspiration: David Bowie). On stage, Hammack is all kinetic energy and vocal power. Offstage, she might be hunkered over an embroidery project, hanging out in her garage splashing paint on a canvas, or at her desk handwriting thank-you notes to fans. And then there’s her only-she-can-sing-it autobiographical music such as current top 40 single, “Family Tree,” and new release, “Preciatcha.”
Yeah, that title looks like it might have emigrated from Eastern Europe, but it’s actually Hammack’s catchy and caustic shorthand for “I appreciate you.” It’s delivered to a particular ex who taught her what love isn’t, so — as the lyric says — “how can I hate ya?”
Leave it to Hammack to find an upside to heartbreak. “My mom used to tell me that every hand you hold is a lesson or a blessin’,” she tells PEOPLE, “and you just gotta figure out which one it is. If it’s good love, you hold onto it. If it’s bad, then you learn what you need to learn and you get out of that situation. You go find yourself good love.”
Here are five more things you need to know about Hammack, whose debut album is due out the first half of next year.
1. She grew up on karaoke, Patsy Cline and big dreams.
A native of Ellaville, Georgia (pop. 1,800), Hammack remembers, at age 5, when she passed by a “pretty house with a picket fence” and she pointedly told her father, “I don’t want that.” It took her a while, though, to figure out what she did want.
She knew by that age that she loved to perform: Her older sister, in middle school, was already paying her five bucks a pop to entertain friends with pint-sized versions of Christina Aguilera‘s “Genie in a Bottle” and Britney Spears‘ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” By the time she turned 10, Hammack fell hard for classic country, including Cline, after making her three payments for a greatest-hits collection advertised on TV. She sang along to that. She also sang along to every Shania Twain song on her karaoke machine. By her early teens, she was finding audiences in regional opry houses.
At age 18, she turned down a college music scholarship to follow her heart with a hometown boy. At age 19, her heart broken, she threw her clothes in trash bags, grabbed her little mutt, Tarbra Streisand (because, if you’re Caylee, what else would you name a black dog?), and she headed to Nashville for a singing career.
2. She lost almost everything she owned in a house fire.
In 2017, four years after her Nashville arrival, Hammack was making headway on her dream. She’d paid her dues singing four-hour sets at Tootsie’s, a Lower Broadway honky-tonk, and she was beginning to get noticed in the music community. But while attending her first songwriting retreat as an artist, she received a fateful phone call: Her rented house was going up in smoke, the result of an electrical fire. (Thankfully, Tarbra was staying with a friend.) Hammack rushed back to Nashville to find most of her belongings destroyed; her renter’s insurance didn’t cover even half the loss.
She now looks on the event as a blessing. “I think that I had to go through the fire in order to learn that material possessions are just that — material — and there’s no true soul behind any of those things,” she says. “I realized that the humans around me, the community I had, was the important part of my life.”
3. She’s had lots of full-circle moments.
Since signing with her label in 2018, Hammack has experienced a number of fluky intersections with her musical heroes.
In sixth grade, she picked Trisha Yearwood as her subject for a presentation on a “famous Georgian,” and she did it in a blonde dime-store wig. “I talked about her and I sang ‘She’s in Love with the Boy,’” Hammack recalls. This year, Yearwood picked her to open for several of her dates and also has invited Hammack to appear on her Southern Kitchen cooking show — but Yearwood still hasn’t heard about the grade-school homage. “I don’t know if that would be awkward or not,” Hammack confesses.
Soon after Hammack’s Nashville arrival, the first song she performed on Lower Broadway was Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead,” foreshadowing Hammack’s inclusion this year in Lambert’s Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour. “I remember when Miranda gave me her number and I typed ‘Miranda Lambert’ into my contact list and I was like, this feels like a lie,’” Hammack recalls.
After singing Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing” every day — sometimes two and three times — during her honky-tonk days, Hammack got to perform the song for McBride in August during an ACM Honors tribute at Ryman Auditorium. The two met afterward backstage. “She said I did it justice, and I was like, ‘Thank you so much,’” Hammack says. “I was blown away just meeting her.”
4. She’d rather be remembered for her songs than her performances.
As riveting as her stage presence is, Hammack hopes she makes her most lasting impression with her voice and her songwriting.
“When you get on stage, you have to perform the song,” she says. “You want people to go into that moment with you, and I like to add a little bit of theatrics to it.” But, she adds, “what I have worked my butt off for is to write a story that will completely immerse you for three minutes into my life.”
Her idea of success is a “song of the year” honor. “I’m not really aiming for number one,” she says. “I want something that stands the test of time, something that people talk about later. There’s a lot of number ones we won’t remember.”
5. Those roots may be brunette, but she has the soul of a redhead.
Hammack says she hated the brown hair she was born with. She tried blonde. She tried a perm. Then about five Halloweens ago, she dressed up as Poison Ivy with a $40 red wig, and everyone swooned over the color. “So I went back to my hair girl, and said, ‘Let’s just go red,’” she says.
Hammack says she once ran across a quote from the hairstylist of another famous self-made redhead, Lucille Ball, and he explained he landed on the color once he realized, in so many words, that “her soul was on fire, so why not her hair?”
“I love that,” says Hammack, and she loves her red hair “because it makes people remember me. I can’t go back. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”