Published: February 1, 2013

Buffy Lawson and Jimmy Hatmaker

Like a Country Song You Keep Humming


Country music has evolved, said the songwriter and singer Buffy Lawson, from “lost my dog, lost my truck, lost my woman.” Still, once love is lost it usually stays that way.

In Ms. Lawson’s songs, the intense yearning for romance can pale before a more basic need: survival. In “I’m Leaving You for Me” she tells of escaping a poisonous relationship: “These prison walls that I’ve been livin’ in/Those paralyzing words that scorched my skin.”

“It was a more general perspective,” Ms. Lawson said when asked if the song was based on her experiences, but she added, “I’ve certainly been in situations that were not healthy for myself.”

Yet she also sings of the warm, affectionate feelings “when he brings me home a rose, when he helps me with my coat” in a song, written with Tim Buppert, called “Good Old-Fashioned Love.”

Ms. Lawson grew up in Lexington, Ky., and in high school dated a boy named Jimmy Hatmaker. Friends and relatives remember a good-looking couple: she was a cheerleader and sang in both the school choir and her church choir, and he was one of the most likable students in the school.

But after he started college, she broke up with him.

“I knew I was not going to be staying in Lexington, and there was no reason to tie him down,” she said. “I knew he was not going with me.”

At 20, Ms. Lawson moved to Nashville, where she lived at first with an aunt and uncle. In an interview with CMT News last year, she said, “I truly thought I would be famous within a month.”

Almost 20 years of struggle, and two marriages, followed. She wrote or co-wrote songs for others, and eventually singers like Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Randy Travis recorded some of them. She also came into her own as a performer, with bands, on her own and even singing a duet with Neil Diamond — on “Marry Me,” one of his songs — on “The Tonight Show.”

Performing meant being on the road often. In Paris, Ky., in 2008 she met a woman who had also sung in the church choir back in Lexington. They exchanged telephone numbers.

The woman was still in touch with another member of their choir, Steven Hatmaker, Jimmy Hatmaker’s brother. When the woman told Steven Hatmaker she had seen Ms. Lawson, he asked for her telephone number.

Jimmy Hatmaker was now a single father raising two young sons, Ethan and Stephen. They had recently moved back to Lexington from Texas and were living with his brother. He was just coming home from work when his brother was on the phone with Ms. Lawson. A few minutes later, he was handed the phone.

They spoke for about 15 minutes and agreed to meet when she was next in town. A week later, Mr. Hatmaker, a project manager for Gray Construction, a Lexington company that builds industrial manufacturing facilities, was on a job site in South Carolina when he received a text from Ms. Lawson saying she would be in Lexington the following weekend and that they should have dinner.

Mr. Hatmaker’s parents had agreed to watch his sons that night, but Ms. Lawson wanted to accompany him when he took them to dinner — at a Chuck E. Cheese’s. She laughed when she saw Mr. Hatmaker’s son Ethan, who was then 3, put ketchup on his potato chips. It was something Mr. Hatmaker had picked up from her.

When they arrived at his parents’ house, she said, “All kinds of things went through my mind, like the time we had Thanksgiving and we had pancakes instead of turkey.” And of her only automobile accident, when she hit the house with her father’s car.

After Chuck E. Cheese’s, Ms. Lawson and Mr. Hatmaker went to another restaurant, but by the time they got there the other patrons were leaving. Having the place to themselves seemed very romantic — until the dim lights got bright, the music shut off and somebody switched on a vacuum cleaner.

The manager said the lights and music were on a timer, and he could not adjust the settings. He apologized by bringing them a bottle of wine and a music player that played Frank Sinatra.

Memories and conversation flowed through the next few hours. Mr. Hatmaker had saved all of her old cards and letters, including the last one that read, “Hey, we need to fly and do our own thing.”

“That was a night I waited a long time for,” he said. “I feel like she felt the same way. There was a real connection; the love was still there.”

Ms. Lawson, too, felt a powerful attraction. Maybe too powerful.

“I thought, This is fun, but I’m a rock star,” she said. “This ain’t going any further.”

Ms. Lawson returned to Nashville. In late November, Mr. Hatmaker wished her a happy Thanksgiving in a text and attached a photograph of him with the boys. He did the same at Christmas, and then again on Jan. 25, his birthday. She always responded, but things went no further.

“He spread them out far enough apart that he wasn’t being stalkerish,” she said. “I’d think, ‘Awwww, that’s so cute,’ and then I wouldn’t think about him for a while.”

In February 2009, Mr. Hatmaker raised the ante and asked her to accompany him on a business trip to New Orleans. Ms. Lawson initially consented, on the condition that they were going only as friends. Then she canceled, saying that she had a gig. Mr. Hatmaker told her he had already bought a plane ticket and that she could keep it. Ms. Lawson called back again the next day and said she would join him after all.

He picked her up at the New Orleans airport in a Mustang convertible.

“It was like we picked up from 25 years ago,” said Mr. Hatmaker, who had also been married twice. “There was nothing uneasy. We just talked about everything. She’s definitely the one I wanted to marry in the first place. She’s the one that got away.”

By the second night of the trip, he asked her if they could begin dating again. She agreed.

For the next year, one or the other would make the three-and-a-half-hour drive between Lexington and Nashville. When Ms. Lawson drove to Kentucky, she would bring her guitar and her poodle, Chloe, and would play and sing for the boys.

“He keeps her grounded, he and the boys,” said her aunt Lynne Genung.

In 2010, she moved in with them. Last year, as Ms. Lawson was making dinner, Mr. Hatmaker and his sons walked into the kitchen and all three got down on one knee and yelled in unison, “Will you marry us?”

Ms. Lawson, 42, and Mr. Hatmaker, 45, were married on Jan. 19 at Chapel at the Park in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The bride did not decide what to wear until a day or two before, opting finally for a short black dress with royal blue and silver stones in the form of a large butterfly. She had worn it in shows. The groom wore a black velvet blazer with an open-collared white shirt, embroidered jeans and black leather square-point shoes.

The Rev. Timothy McIntyre, a minister affiliated with Chapel at the Park, a nondenominational Christian ministry, officiated in a bright orange tie because the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team was playing Mississippi State that day.

There were no bridesmaids or best man. Ethan, now 7, walked Ms. Lawson down the aisle, and Stephen, 8, held her ring. When the vows were read, the boys said, “We do.”

Though “Good Old-Fashioned Love” was written before Ms. Lawson and Mr. Hatmaker reunited, their relationship might be one of those times when life becomes art.

“I felt like, wow,” she said. “I knew exactly what I wanted.”

She added, “I love the simplicity and the gentleness and the Southern sweetness we have in our marriage.”


Background Ms. Lawson and Mr. Hatmaker dated in high school in Lexington, Ky. Each had been married twice when they reunited 25 years later.

WHEN Jan. 19, 2013

WHERE Chapel at the Park, Gatlinburg, Tenn.

DETAILS The bride gave the groom a ring with three diamonds on it, signifying the presence of his two sons and now her in his life.

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