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.