Heather Myles - River deep
It's no surprise by now that the opening, title track on Heather Myles' new record Sweet Talk & Good Lies is a straight-ahead honky-tonk shuffle in the classic Bakersfield/Buck Owens mode. Nor that another, "One And Only Lover", summons up the rhythm and rockabilly pop attack of Buddy Holly. Buck and Buddy have long been acknowledged influences on Myles' music. That the closer is the lounge standard "Cry Me A River", on the other hand, is utterly unexpected. Buck, Buddy -- and Julie London? Last cuts on records tend to tell you things -- where performers are going, or find themselves, right now. So you wonder what it shows us about Heather Myles -- about whom even longtime fans may know very little. "Cry Me A River" became a worldwide sensation in 1955, replacing "Melancholy Baby" as the late-night lounge lurker's request of choice. It won such standing in the capable hands of London, the ex-Mrs. Jack Webb, who'd mastered the means to interest ex-GIs and early-'50s frat boys with a "just the facts" attitude of her own. She seemed to have stepped out of the pages of some noir thriller -- "sultry" to the degree she was unobtainable, utterly unmovable. She performs the song in the movie The Girl Can't Help It -- the icy antithesis of Marilyn stand-in Jayne Mansfield as sex symbol, and Little Richard as performer. "I've always heard that song as a country song, oddly enough," Myles says. "The title idea struck me as country right from the gate! I always thought that if I ever did it, I'd put some steel on it, and country it up, just ever so slightly." Two previous country singer takes on "Cry Me A River", by Crystal Gayle and Anne Murray, simply took it back to its jazzier roots. But who does the cryin', and how much, is certainly country song fodder -- and for a woman who takes the unusual step of singing hard honky-tonk regularly, a tricky one. How tough can a honky-tonk woman be -- or does she need to be? The cover of Myles' last CD, 1998's Highways & Honky Tonks, shows her staring back in-your-face in a cowgirl suit, hands on belt, challenging. The ranks of country women who have ventured to look and sound that roadhouse rough have been sparsely filled. So beyond Buck Owens, or Merle Haggard (who dueted with her on that last record), or even Dwight Yoakam (who duets with her on the new one), were there women who offered models on how Myles might go about being a honky-tonk singer? She points to several. "Rose Maddox...and Loretta Lynn, of course," Myles offers. "Loretta kind of got out there; she said things in her music that not many women say today. She's a straight shooter." Loretta's writing influence might be spotted in the frankness about a pregnancy in Myles' new song "The Love You Left Behind", though the "little bit of little love growin,' left inside of me" is portrayed as a comforting reminder of a trucker out on the road. There's a calmness about it. New songs such as "If the Truth Hurts, Tell Me A Lie", "Homewrecker Blues" and the "Sweet Talk & Good Lies" of the title track seem right in the skeptical, but carefully accepting, honky-tonk tradition set by Jean Shepherd and Norma Jean in the early '60s. In their songs, how much to confront a man, how far away from the quiet and long-suffering country girl in crinolines they could go, hung in the balance. "Cry Me A River", written by a high school classmate of Julie London, is simple on surface; it's about tables turned. The guy who had spurned her, probably long ago, says he wants her back now, and she tells him to go and have a good cry for himself, as she once did. The hit version delivered this story so flatly that you couldn't quite tell what London felt about the situation as she sang it; was she still hurt, or vengeful, or offering a backhanded invitation? Picking one of these and sticking with it would be the job of the song's creative interpreters ever after -- and there have been dozens. Today, singing harder than mainstream country tends to assign a singer to the alt-country/Americana camp. But how many women with broad recognition can be identified as members? Rosie Flores? Danni Leigh? Neko Case, maybe? "It's hard even for a man to do honky-tonk now, let alone a woman," Myles suggests. As for the alt-country neighborhood, "I'm comfortable in it -- but I'd like to think that there might be a place on mainstream country radio for me, too. I want to help change what you hear there. There should be room for the Derailers, the Dale Watsons -- and for Heather Myles!" There are women on country radio Myles can admire as well. "Patty Loveless has certainly run the gamut and been successful at it, and I really respect her for it," she says. "I'm also a big fan of the Dixie Chicks. I certainly hear a lot of Loretta and tradition there." Record companies have been figuring Myles might have mainstream potential since her first release, 1992's Just Like Old Times, on HighTone. It was a few years after Dwight Yoakam busted onto the charts; HighTone had found some success with the Lonesome Strangers, and they saw a window still cracked for breaking artists in the straight-ahead vein. The stable of musicians that would become associated with Dave Alvin, Chris Gaffney and others -- Greg Leisz on dobro, Brantley Kearns on fiddle, sometimes Buddy Miller on guitar -- backed Myles first. Musicians who form the basis of her band to this day -- Bob Gothar on guitar, Skip Edwards on keyboards, Larry Mitchell on drums -- were in place early on, some even before she was signed. That first HighTone CD was dominated by Myles' own compositions, including standouts such as "Rum & Rodeo" (a clear-voiced hymn to a down-and-out cowboy) and "The Other Side Of Town" (a Bakersfield shuffle that suggested "I don't have another tear in me to cry"). Some of those early performances were tentative, the rhythms not as crackling as they would get. There was considerable critical attention paid, but the hit single didn't happen. The stepped-up rockabilly of "Cadillac Cowboy" on the 1995 follow-up release, Untamed, didn't get there either, though it was culled from a notably sharper CD, featuring a tighter band. Hightone simply wasn't geared toward attracting country radio play. What does emerge however, is an artist who's written song after song about hurting, leaving, and more often, being left, with titles such as "It Ain't Over" and "Begging To You". This was one forlorn album, and all the honky-tonk bravura mustered couldn't hide the fact that, as someone put it elsewhere, Heather was all bummed out. "Every album I've ever done is partly about me, and Untamed was made at a very trying time in my life," she says. "I was going through a lot of emotional problems -- breakups and changes." How drastic it must have been for her to adapt to a life on the road at rock clubs and honky-tonks is not really understandable until you figure in where she'd come from. Myles had grown up a kind of country girl, all right, but hers was hardly the story of Loretta Lynn or Patty Loveless rising from poverty as a coal miner's daughter. Heather Myles grew up on her father's huge California ranch, which produced thoroughbred racehorses. Hers was the kind of childhood that involved appearing at horse shows, in outfits. The family even made it clear that they expected her, as the lightest one around, to try to make it as a jockey -- which is what she was doing when the switch to pursuing a musical career came about, suddenly. "My grandfather was a jockey, my brother was a trainer, my father was involved in all of that, of course," she says. "I got into a fight with my brother, the trainer. I just got tired of getting on his lame horses, and I said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore, just because it's the family tradition.'" The only music in that family tradition was a grandfather, John Scott Craigmyles, who was "a pretty famous bagpiper, in Canada," she says. In fact, most of her family resided in Calgary or Vancouver or Edmonton, and she spent her summers there. California-born herself, she only took dual American/Canadian citizenship much later. In California, the airwaves around Myles' home were awash in the sounds of hard country, thanks to KCKC in San Bernardino, a classic California country station that broadcast a steady diet of Buck and Merle and Wynn Stewart. "I grew up on Conway and Loretta duets -- thank God!" Myles says now. If she'd secretly been "playing singer" with make-believe microphones since the age of 3, she first broke loose and recorded herself, after high school, in a county fair recording booth, cutting Patsy Cline and Loretta tunes for her country-loving mom, for Mother's Day. "It really came out great. Mom cried, and she said, 'Heather, you know, you need to do something with this.'" Still a teenager at the time, Heather met a musician at a local record store who was looking for a "girl singer" for a country group he'd formed with guys who worked at the Fender Guitar factory in nearby Corona. She took over that band in a matter of weeks, and soon was playing dates in local clubs. In short order, she was playing guitar well enough to write, and the songs came fast. They had a contract to record honky-tonk for HighTone in a year. Her horsebreeding dad, by the way, preferred the cool tones of Miss Peggy Lee -- clearly the singing model for Julie London. Lee inevitably took the icy, remote approach when covering "Cry Me A River" herself. Barbara Streisand would practically make a full-book show out of the tune's turns. R&B singers from Dinah Washington to Nina Simone took their shots -- as would Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Combustible Edison, Bjork -- even Aerosmith. The decisive moment for a singer interpreting the song comes at its remarkable bridge, which in a few phrases lets it be as obsessed, even to madness, and as constrained or over the top, as the singer chooses to make it: "You drove me, nearly drove me out of my head, while you never shed a tear. Remember, remember all that you said..." So there's that Heather Myles who took over a band in days and got a career started in a year. "I'm a high-key type person," she admits. "A lot of people say, 'God, Heather -- are you on speed?' And I've never touched it, never needed it, because I go 90 miles an hour all day anyway -- and don't stop till 3 o'clock in the morning." Which leads us to another love of her life, often reflected in her songs: The former pony girl went nuts for Harleys and fast cars. "I traded my horses for horsepower, and for a Hog!" she laughs. Her interest goes beyond racing: Restoring an MG or a Morris Minor, grease monkey style, is her idea of relaxation. "They're so American, the older cars; I don't like the new round plastic stuff. I like chrome! To me, cars are such pieces of history. I like, especially, big cars -- those big Lincoln Continentals with the suicide doors on the back, and big old Cadillacs." A catchy pop number on the new CD, "Big Cars", speaks directly to that love affair. The featured duet with Dwight Yoakam, "Little Chapel", is a Mexican-tinged border song penned by Myles for the occasion, about driving to a wedding chapel on the Las Vegas strip. And her new take on "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", understated and soaked in memories, is, of course, partly a song about driving. "I identify with that one; I've been driving cross country, leaving someone," she says. It's easy to apply her characterizations of those beloved power machines to her focus on classic honky-tonk styles. Her songs regularly reflect the sense that cars and music have both blanded out, that the music got too big as the cars got too small. "I ride down the freeway and wonder if that's a Toyota or a Ford," she says. "I don't know anymore; nothing stands out in my mind. And it's the same with country music radio, too. They all want to sound alike and say pretty much -- nothing." Her favorite cut fon the new record is "Nashville's Gone Hollywood", another entry in the rising genre that jabs the radio establishment for a narrow focus on surfaces. Perhaps Myles' indictment carries some extra weight, because she's got the sleek sound and look that they could easily make indistinguishable, in their way -- if she were of a mind to let it happen. That crucial bridge of "Cry Me A River" manages to bring up elements of class and power and a sense of self-worth in a few not-very-country words: "[You] told me love was too plebeian; told me you were through with me -- and now you say you love me..." Between her HighTone and Rounder stints came one of those long gaps that seem to mark Myles' career: She spent much of the mid-late '90s in England, where a music-industry boyfriend resided, and in Europe. "I was introduced to an entirely different music scene there, sort of a paradise for me," she recalls. "I ended up buying a place in London and I lived there on and off for three years. I would just go over and stay for a few months, and tour all over Europe. I started out playing little bingo parlors and worked my way up to big venues -- and I loved it." A 1996 release on UK label Demon Records, Sweet Little Dangerous: Live At Bottom Line, captures Heather delivering an upbeat show in London's Shepherd's Bush. The cover photo reveals a much tougher-looking young woman, sporting shades and perched on her motorcycle. "I found Europeans to be far more educated in music," she says. "I was amazed at how many steel guitar players I've met just in Holland, for instance. I still have my place over there. Of course, for the last couple of years I've been able to do more shows here in America." She signed with Rounder in the late '90s and began working with producer Michael Dumas, who had engineered her band's demo for HighTone back at the beginning. Musicians who played regularly with Dwight Yoakam -- ace guitarist Pete Anderson, bassist Taras Prodaniuk, and drummer Jim Christie -- joined her on some key album cuts and sometimes, when schedules permitted, on the road. The attention-grabbing 1998 Rounder release Highways & Honky Tonks included the duet with Merle and was backed with videos and tours of indie music halls across the country. Heather delivered full-tilt, rhythmic honky-tonk numbers such as "Broken Heart For Sale" with rising, compelling new authority. "I was so happy to get back in the studio," she says. "There had been a gap, and I had these songs ready to go, and I knew it was going to be a honky-tonk record. And we made a lot of headway with that album." Sweet Talk & Good Lies, released on June 25, follows another sizable gap between releases, much of which was spent performing, then writing. There was some delay coordinating the schedules of the musicians, the producer, and finally Dwight for that duet, which may yield a new video. On the new album's cover, Myles looks almost elegant, eyes closed, pensive. The disc ranges from powered-up honky-tonk to rockabilly to ballads; it swings easily in its lyrics and sounds between vulnerability and toughness. "Musically, I tried to have a well-rounded record," she says "And, you know, I think that is where I am in my life now. Maybe it comes with age!" She bought a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico in Tampa, Florida, trading a house in Nashville for the express purpose of getting away from it all -- and sailing, which turns out to be a growing passion for Myles now. It's the opposite of those big power rides -- catching the wind, riding with it, working the balance between control and being taken by the elements. The Julie London song leaves each singer to decide how to nail the final "prove you love me; cry me a river" response in the bridge's wake. Heather Myles finishes it off as a woman: resolute, calm -- and forgiving. Because of parking limitations in Hoboken, New Jersey, ND contributing editor Barry Mazor does not have big cars.