Eric Heywood - Trace elements
Pedal steel guitar is a lot like a movie soundtrack in that the more you notice it, the less effective it is. In its overwrought variation, waves of pedal-steel weeping is one of country music's hoariest cliches. But if wielded with taste and restraint, it can add just the touch of evocative atmosphere. Eric Heywood has been doing that for the past fifteen years, contributing to dozens of albums that most No Depression readers know well. Check the discography on his website, and you'll find credits on records by artists such as Son Volt, Richard Buckner, the Jayhawks, Alejandro Escovedo, Freakwater, Calexico, Kathleen Edwards and John Doe, along with wild cards including teen-pop singer Mandy Moore and Latino fusion band Yerba Buena. Heywood doesn't have an identifiable signature sound so much as a sensibility that makes him an ideal supporting player. Now 46, he grew up in Mount Vernon, Iowa, the youngest of three kids. His parents both taught at a small liberal-arts college, and artistic ambitions were encouraged and pursued. (Heywood's brother Phil is a renowned fingerstyle guitarist; his sister is head conservator of the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Heywood got his big break in the early 1990s, when he hooked up with Joe Henry during Henry's alternative-country troubadour phase, and he's stayed busy ever since. When he's not playing with his wife, singer-songwriter Kristin Mooney, Heywood's latest steady gig is with Ray LaMontagne. A recent phone call found him at home in Los Angeles, preparing to head for Europe and three weeks of sessions to record LaMontagne's next album. NO DEPRESSION: What are some of your earliest musical memories? ERIC HEYWOOD: My dad had these old thick records of Lead Belly, and my brother was obsessed with "Rock Island Line". My first instrument was actually piano. I didn't really start messing with guitar until late in high school. I got a guitar my senior year. My brother was a pretty good player by then and he was really into country blues. He got me started playing Blind Willie McTell, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, all that stuff. That's what he taught me. Mississippi John Hurt's version of "Candyman" was the first song I ever learned on guitar. ND: Before you became a serious musician, what did you do? EH: I got a degree in art from Macalester College in St. Paul, but there was no plan. I was just drifting along. Thought I might go to graduate school, but I didn't. I wasn't committed to it, or even sure why I was doing it. Ultimately, I gravitated toward guitar and spent all my time playing. I wasn't drawing or painting or sketching. My parents were really supportive of anything we wanted to do, although it sometimes made them nervous if we had no backup plan. I kind of floundered around after I got my degree. I had periods of doing carpentry for a living, and I drove a cab part-time right out of college. That was an interesting experience for a small-town kid in a big city, very strange. It was fascinating for a month or two, but then it was just depressing. It was not at all romantic unless you're into drug deals, wife-beating and vomiting drunks. ND: When did you start playing pedal steel? EH: I'd played guitar all through college and had a little country blues band for a while toward the end, and I spent a couple of years with a band called the Ranchtones in Minneapolis. Then in about 1986, I bought a pedal steel guitar on a whim. I'd heard the sound a few times, but I was not all that familiar with it. Nobody cared about pedal steel then; Nashville country music was at an all-time low. But inexplicably, I went and bought one. I took a few lessons from this guy named Cal Hand. He'd made a record with Leo Kottke in the '70s, this weird little unknown pedal-steel-and-guitar instrumental record [The Wylie Butler, released by Takoma in 1977], and he played on the very first Jayhawks record. Nowadays, he's a postman. Anyway, he gave me five lessons, just basically showing me where to put things. I learned a couple of songs from him, things like "Tennessee Waltz". After that, I just taught myself off records. ND: Do you still play that first guitar you bought? EH: No, that was an old junky thing, a student model. I paid like $300 for it and it was basically a starter kit. Cal sold me another one, this bizarre handmade thing that was hand-whittled. Then I found a Williams pedal steel guitar at a garage sale in St. Paul, from this old guy who had the flattop and one-piece suit like George Jones in the '60s. Williams is a company outside Minneapolis, one of the better builders in the country. So I bought that Williams not knowing I was getting a really good guitar. I did all the Son Volt stuff with that. ND: What were some of your inspirations when you started playing pedal steel? EH: Ben Keith, Neil Young's guy, was a big one. I wasn't really aware of him, I just appreciated what he did. Pedal steel can be a real showboat instrument. A lot of what you hear is steel players just waiting for their turn to show off. But Ben Keith's playing was not flashy. Very simple, understated and supportive of the song, more as a colorer than a standout soloist. Lloyd Green, a big Nashville session guy in the '60s and '70s [interviewed by Rich Kienzle in ND #71], was another inspiration. Buddy Emmons, too. And Tom Brumley, who did all that Buck Owens stuff in the '60s -- "Together Again", he does a really gorgeous thing on there. Speedy West, who was really wacked out in an almost comical way on these goofy white-jazz kind of western swing records. Also Sneaky Pete Kleinow, in his own weird way. He's maybe the only one who had some acid influence. He played on all that Gram Parsons west coast hippie stuff and had a big influence, although he wasn't the player some of those other guys were. ND: Have you always been conscious of making your own playing as restrained as possible? EH: Well, half the reason I didn't step up earlier was that I just wasn't good enough. But having been self-taught, I never fell into the common ruts so many Nashville guys do from having learned the same ways and the same licks from each other. In a way, I've been lucky to be removed from all that. By not being a part of the steel fraternity, I've been able to develop my own thing and a different approach. ND: What was the hardest thing about learning pedal steel? EH: Getting the right pitch, because you're just holding a bar at approximately the right place. The frets are just marked, so it's like a violin and it's completely up to your ear to get the pitch right. Also, there are ten or eleven strings, so you have to pick different grabs and be accurate. There are ten-string instruments, also eleven, twelve, some fourteen. The evolution of the instrument started in Hawaii, a guy playing slide guitar in his lap. Then it went from six strings to eight, then double necks, putting legs on it, adding pedals. It's still evolving. I used to break strings when I was younger and nervous and grabbing hard, and also playing cheaper guitars that weren't as smooth. You're working the pedals and pulling on the strings. So a G-sharp, which is E on a regular guitar cranked all the way up to G-sharp, puts some serious pressure on the string and that one tends to break. You can also get a bad batch of strings. I didn't used to know good from bad. Playing with Joe Henry in Europe in the early '90s, I broke a string mid-song and then spent the next five songs trying to get another one on. So there were six songs in a row where I couldn't do anything but sweat profusely as I tried to change it. ND: How did you get hooked up with Henry? EH: I was playing with the Ranchtones in Minneapolis and the Jayhawks were playing around at the same time. Joe Henry started using them as they were beginning to make some noise and get record-label interest. Short Man's Room and Kindness Of The World had the Jayhawks as his band, and they would tour together. Then the Jayhawks' own thing took over, so he put together another band with Minneapolis guys. Tim O'Reagan and Jim Boquist were the rhythm section, and Razz [Mike Russell] from the Ranchtones got me in the band. We started rehearsing and hit the road. Our first tour was opening for Jimmie Dale Gilmore. ND: Was it obvious then that Henry would be the svengali-like producer he has become? EH: No. At that time, Joe was an aspiring songwriter with the whole roots-rock vibe. He was wonderful to work with, a really fun guy and always upbeat. But he seemed to get tired of the roots-rock country scene pretty quickly, and he changed rather dramatically on [1996's] Trampoline. [Producer] Pat McCarthy introduced Joe to different approaches and he never looked back, just kept expanding in different directions. ND: You were into your Son Volt run by then. How did that come about? EH: We [Joe Henry and band] went to Europe and did five weeks opening for Uncle Tupelo in 1994, their very last run before breaking up. There were some tensions, but no overt outbursts. Mostly, it was a lot of silence and people keeping to themselves. But aside from the obvious tension, we all got along and the music was great. Then Jay [Farrar] decided to break off and he put together a band with Joe's band and Jim Boquist's brother Dave. We made [1995's] Trace outside Minneapolis. That first record, Jay really had the parts worked out and he played most of the guitars himself. I was kind of the wild card. He pretty much let me go and took what he got from me. He was always really good about letting me do what I do. ND: Then came Richard Buckner and Alejandro Escovedo, right? EH: Richard opened for Son Volt a lot during those years, and I liked him immediately. So I would play with Richard during the opening set, too, and Richard started taking me out on his own, just him and me driving around in his Toyota truck. We were an odd duo, really loud and noisy. There was one point where we had four amps onstage, each of us playing in stereo. It sounded good from where we were sitting, anyway. Alejandro was another guy I got to know from him opening for Son Volt. He contacted me later and I toured with him quite a bit for a couple of years, sometimes with him and Richard together as one big group. He was pretty open to anything I did, mixing pedal steel and cello [from Brian Standefer] into orchestral parts into this very nice, wide open mixture of stuff. ND: It seems like any act you're on a bill with, you wind up playing with them, too. Is that the best way to network? EH: I've been real lucky. It's always been word-of-mouth and friends of friends, happening organically and more for musical than business reasons. Joe Henry introduced me to a lot of people, Jay Bellerose among them -- he's an amazing drummer, played on the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record. I've done a lot of work with him and Jennifer Condos, including a record we did with my wife, Kristin Mooney. I met Ray LaMontagne through them, too. The music is wonderful, they're a great rhythm section and the gigs are beautiful. They're in theaters with a really quiet audience that's there to listen. That's nerve-wracking, but it's still better than bashing away in a rock club trying to overcome noise and shitty PAs. ND: Do you still play a Williams pedal steel guitar? EH: Yeah, I had Williams build me the custom guitar I play now, an eleven-string single-neck. They cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. I'm not a real super gearhead. The search for tone is a lifelong thing, but to me it has more to do with pickups and amps and the way you play. The differences between pedal steel guitars are a little more subtle, more for the players themselves. It's hard to experiment too much because they're so expensive and they take up a lot of room. I'm pretty happy with my sound on the Williams, so I don't go searching around too much. Williams is a family business, Bill Rudolph makes them himself with his son. I love cool old tube amps, like a little late-'30s/early-'40s Kalamazoo or a Supro Thunderbolt type with the original 15-inch Jensen speaker. I used an early-'60s Vox AC 50 head with a 2-12 cabinet for all the Son Volt stuff -- the original cabinet had the Allman Brothers stencil on it. But I mostly use one of two different custom-made amps. One is a Savage Audio Rohr 15, designed and built by Jeff Krumm and Andy Wolf up in Minnesota. The other is a Richtone 30-watt 2-12 combo, designed and built by Rich Lovato here in Los Angeles. They're both wonderful. If I have to rent on the road, I usually go for the Fender blackface deluxe reissue. They're reliable and sound pretty good. And I use a Goodrich LDR volume pedal, a Goodrich matchbox and a few pedals on a small pedal board, including delay and a hint of reverb. ND: Do you write songs yourself? EH: No. I've dabbled, but I could never be happy with anything I did. I'm really more about the sound of things. Someday I may do an instrumental record. That's conceivable. We'll see. ND: Do you prefer playing live or recording? EH: Well, I want to keep doing both because they're really different. Playing live is really important to me -- a good live night is one of my favorite things. But I love making records, too. Live, it just happens right then and you only get one chance to get it right. So there's an intensity to it, and a crowd egging you on and looking for something. That's the origin of music, playing for the sake of playing and once it's done, it's gone. Making records, there's not the pressure to make it happen right then. The great thing about it is you can sit back and analyze and redo. You're making an object that's going to be around, so you pay attention to the details. Although it's better if it's like live music. At least with what I'm involved in, the days of laying down a kick and then a snare and a bass and the guitar player comes in a week later, that's gone. My favorite records tend to be done pretty live rather than pasted together in a chopped-up collage of half performances. ND: What's it like to listen to records you've played on? EH: It can be satisfying or disturbing. A lot of times, it can be a bummer to hear, just torturous. You hear things you would've done different, if you could. It's really hard to please myself with my own playing. But it's a good way to learn, and every now and then it's good to hear something that really worked. It's like what they say about baseball, a guy with a .333 average is an all-star -- and that's a success rate of only one out of three. Music is kind of like that, a lot of misses. Those occasional things where you really hit it out of the park, though, they're a pleasure to listen back to.