Heather Myles – River deep
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.”