By the time Rachel Wammack reached Nashville after college, she'd pretty much given up on love. A sad string of failed romances had taken care of that. But she'd gotten really good at writing songs about heartbreak.
Her 2018 debut EP is chock-full of them, and her 2019 single "Something People Say" has to be among the most sorrowful — and sorrowfully beautiful — songs to come out of Nashville.
And then, out of the blue, it happened: Wammack met Mr. Right. Now what the heck was she supposed to write about?
"I was a little confused creatively," she admits to PEOPLE, "because I was like, well, if I don't have a sad muse, I don't know what to say. I remember for a couple of months there, I was uninspired."
But one songwriting session last year turned it around for the Alabaman. As she described her soon-to-be fiancé to her co-writers, Jimmy Robbins and Eric Arjes, she told them, "He is so different from any other guy that I've dated. He just does what all the other guys didn't do."
That was inspiration enough for Robbins. Hammack remembers he beckoned: "Why don't we write a song?"
The result is her new and decidedly happy single, "What He Does," a lilting, R&B-infused song tailor-made for her expressive voice.
Wammack says she left that fateful session with more than a song. She also walked out with a revelation.
"All of a sudden," she says, "I was like, oh my goodness, I've had this inspiration the whole time. I just wasn't used to writing out that feeling. I feel like it's matured me as a writer. It's not just therapy writing. It's writing about my life from all aspects. So it's opened me up to writing about my family. It's opened me up to writing about growing up, about just different things in life. But it all started with writing about being happy."
That's just one thing to know about the up-and-coming artist. Here are five more:
1. Her first musical love was the marimba.
Though Wammack took piano lessons growing up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, she fell hard for the marimba, which is similar to a xylophone, when she joined her high school's percussion ensemble. For a time, she even dreamed about playing the instrument in a Broadway orchestra.
The ensemble's shows, she says, offered her a first taste of the thrill of live performance.
"That's where I learned how to smile and evoke emotion," she recalls, "and also how to feel something deeply while you play. And those songs didn't have words. It was just music. I think in a way God was preparing me as a young person to deal with nerves as a performer, because I don't get nervous too much."
2. She was "discovered," storybook-style.
During high school, Hammack sang covers and her own original songs just for fun at a local restaurant where she also worked as a hostess, never seriously considering singing as a career. Then one night Sony exec Jim Catino, in town for a golf trip, dropped by for dinner.
"He came up to me at the end of the night — and at this point, I was 17 — and he was like, 'I love your songs, I love your originals,'" Wammack recalls. And then he asked: "Would you ever think about moving to Nashville?"
Flattered but skeptical, she took Catino's card. When her parents followed up, they of course discovered he was the real deal. "Dad and I ended up making a trip up to Nashville and talked with him about what it would be like," she says, but she still couldn't envision pursuing a singing and songwriting career. Instead, she headed off to the University of North Alabama to eventually earn a degree in professional writing.
"Something in me said, just go to college, get a degree," Wammack says. "That's not everyone's path and I totally get that, but for me, I wanted that. I wanted something that no one could take away from me."
Throughout college, she continued her singing and songwriting, staying in touch with Catino, who kept offering her encouragement.
3. She's a real-life Miss Congeniality.
In search of scholarship money, Wammack entered the Miss University of North Alabama pageant, accompanying herself on marimba as she sang "What a Feeling" from Flashdance.
"And I ended up winning the whole thing, and I was like, oh, no, now I'm going to Miss Alabama!" she remembers.
Vying against other young women who had been groomed their whole lives for pageants, Wammack admits she felt out of her element. Though she didn't place in the event, she did earn more scholarship money by winning the talent portion, and her fellow competitors voted her Miss Congeniality.
"Just getting to be there and working my butt off and performing for a completely different audience," she says, "it stretched me and helped me prepare for the job that I have now."
4. She committed to an artist career — when she signed her recording contract!
After college, Catino persuaded Wammack to move to Nashville, where she quickly got her foot in the door with songwriting, yet she still thought a performing career was out of reach. Over time, her song submissions to Sony resulted in an invitation to perform before Catino and other executives.
"I got there and played four or five songs, and at the end they said, 'We want to offer you an artist development deal,' which means for 12 to 18 months they'd develop and work with me," Wammack says. "I was like, oh my gosh, okay, let's do it. And I felt them believe in me."
A month later, she was called back in. Wammack says she was immediately apprehensive. "I'm like, oh no, I pissed somebody off," she recalls. "I didn't know what was going on."
In fact, the label was ready to cut to the chase and offer her a full record deal. "And that was the point when I was like, all right, I have no idea what I'm doing, but we're doing this," she says.
Since her signing in February 2018, she's performed at the Grand Ole Opry, toured the United States and Europe, opened for Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire and Rascal Flatts, and just last month, she was featured on the Flatts' new single "Quick, Fast, In a Hurry."
"These are things that I just never in a million years dreamed as that little high school marimba player," she says. "Maybe it was a God thing, not giving me an ego to make me think I could do it all along. But I'm so thankful, and it makes me want to work extra, extra, extra hard."
5. No surprise: Her husband, Noah Purcell, is her biggest fan.
The two met while both worked at a Nashville bistro, and it took Wammack a while to let down her guard and see him as more than a friend.
She says she remembers Purcell telling her: "I'm going to prove it to you that I am your guy." Over time, she says, "We got closer and I just realized he was proving it to me, and he was authentic."
The two just celebrated their first wedding anniversary, on Aug. 3, and Wammack says their first year of married life has flown by.
"Maybe it's so newlywed for me to say, but we're learning so much about each other and we love spending time together," she says, grateful for this silver lining to the pandemic. "I used to travel so much that we really, really valued our time together, but it's kind of cool in this season, having this unlimited time."
During their quarantine, they've added a labradoodle puppy to their household, "so we're a little family now," says Wammack.
A recent college graduate, Purcell now works as a worship leader at a Nashville church.
"He supported my career for so long while he was in school," says Wammack, "so it's really wonderful for me to sit back and watch him do his thing and be supportive. It's a joy for me to see him doing what he loves, just like it is for him to see me."
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