Eric Heywood – Trace elements
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.