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.