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One of a Kind

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Eric Heatherly has found success by just being himself and playing what he loves

When it comes to talent, Eric Heatherly has been generously blessed. And luckily for his fans, the singer, songwriter and guitar prodigy has committed himself to creating the rootsy, gutsy, unadulterated music he was born to make. Since the Chattanooga native arrived on Nashville’s musical landscape in 2000, with his Top 10 Billboard Hot Country debut single “Flowers on the Wall”—a cover version of the Statler Brothers’ debut single, in 1965—he’s built a successful career by sticking to his creative guns and letting his undeniable integrity shine through his music. A brilliant guitarist, whose penchant for drawing warm emotion out of his instrument is never lost in his awesome technical proficiency, Heatherly’s allegiance to his craft is solidified, whether he’s evoking sweet, smoky, velvety tones out of six strings or shredding and slinging wildly on the axe. His dedicated finger work has not gone unnoticed by industry stalwarts, among them Duane Eddy and Shania Twain.

Heatherly’s cool, eclectic endeavors as a songwriter have spawned tracks with lyrical topics that range from the moody to the bright and thoughtful sounds that reflect breaths of fresh air over an old school-type reverence. And although his innovative tunes thrive in an independent arena, this consummate hipster makes music that the masses enjoy too, which helps explain why his 2005 album, The Lower East Side of Life, spawned six Top 10 singles in Europe and why catchy songs, such as “Unforgettable” from his latest CD, 2 High 2 Cry, appear in popular television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy.

We are raring to hit the road soon and join other fellow New Orleanians who flock to the Gulf Coast to tear it up and cut the rug with Heatherly and his band at their unforgettable high-energy shows. So pack your bags New Orleans—and don’t forget your dancing shoes!

Hey, Eric! What’s up with you?

Hey, Christine! I’m so glad you called. Thanks for remembering me.

Well, you and your music are hard to forget, especially when you hear your new song “Unforgettable” being played on Grey’s Anatomy and stuff like that!

I was actually out on the road when it was aired. And I would ask guys about the show and they didn’t know anything about it, but every woman is crazy about that show! They would come up to me and say, “We heard your song on Grey’s and it was fantastic,” and I was like, “How is this happening?” I had the opportunity to write music for a pilot called Parks and Recreation, a hot show that’s up and running now and other projects for film and television are in the works.

That’s great, because more people need to experience your music. The first time I heard you live I was blown away, and then I kept hearing nice compliments about you from stalwart musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis and Duane Eddy, who called you his favorite new guitar player … and heck, you even became famous for being the guy who turned down Shania Twain!

Yes, that was tough. It was a great opportunity for me, but it was a double-edged sword, because at the time I was only about 25 or 26 and they heard me playing guitar at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville and wanted to hire me to play lead guitar for Shania’s tour. I did a few dates and the CMA Awards Show with her and then ironically, I got offered my own record deal. So I quit her tour and went off on my own to see what I could do. I had to give it a whirl, and it was definitely the right decision.

It sure was. Your debut single, a cover of the Statler Brother’s 1965 debut “Flowers on the Wall,” was a Top 10 hit for you in 2000. You took cover songs to a new level with that one.

Yeah, it topped out at number six and the video was number one for eight weeks, I think. It was crazy! That gave me a good starting point, and I just never looked back, never stopped touring, never stopped writing, never stopped playing, and I’ve just been building the fan base for a whole decade now. I still play everywhere around the states and internationally, in Poland, France and Switzerland in some big festivals over there. We’ve got about 75 or so dates set so far in 2010.

You must be playing the heck out of the songs from your latest album, 2 High 2 Cry, and you’ve gotten some fantastic accolades with that album. I loved when Robert Oermann with MusicRow reviewed a slew of albums and then said that 2 High 2 Cry was the only one worth talking about.

He’s a very well-respected music critic in Nashville, and he can make or break records, and when he said that, I was completely blown away. He doesn’t candy-coat anything; if he doesn’t like a record, you’re going to hear about it. He doesn’t try to cushion his opinion at all. His record reviews are very important to labels, so that was a really good leg up for me. I couldn’t believe it.

All the songs on 2 High 2 Cry are so diverse and innovative. Each song really stands on its own.

Thank you! It was written over a three-year period, that’s probably why. I went through many ups and downs during that period. I was raising my little girl as a single father, I was dating again after a divorce, I was traveling around and writing songs and doing shows all around the states. I was just soaking up the environment of people and fans. 

Your new song “Bluer ‘N Blackie” is an ode to Eric Clapton and other guitar greats.

Absolutely, it’s a guitar player’s song. The song quotes the names of famous guitar players’ guitars in some of the lines, like “Crying like Lucille in the hands of B.B.” because B.B. King’s guitar is Lucille, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar was Lenny, and of course Clapton’s guitar was Blackie. It’s about playing guitar and working your fingers to the bone and coming home from the road and your woman’s gone, but your guitar’s always there for you!

I’m not saying you’re exactly like Elvis, because, well, no one is, but has anyone ever told you that you sort of remind them of him in some way?

Okay, I’ve got a crazy answer for you: Back in 1996, before I had my first record deal, I was invited to play at the swanky, red-velvet-everywhere Elvis club on Beale Street in Memphis that Priscilla and Lisa Marie opened. I worshipped Elvis so much and no one will ever be that cool again, but I’m at the club and I looked into the audience and I’m like, please tell me that is not Sam Phillips! I was dying, because it was him—the Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Charlie Rich, all the greats. He was about 65 or 70, and he was decked out in a white suit, gold chains, rings and shades. I was so nervous that he was there because Elvis and rockabilly and all that was my life at that time. He watched me play and afterwards he was like, “Come here boy, sit in my booth. You know who I am and my history?” I was like, “Um, yes, I think so.” He says, “I just gotta tell you something, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an artist who does it all—write, perform and everything—and you’re going to make it. Don’t change a thing that you’re doing.” He even invited me over to his house the next day, and I went over there and sat on his couch and he said, “You know who sat right there where you are? Elvis!” He pointed his finger in my face and preached at me all day long about how Nashville would rip my heart out and stifle my creativity if I let them, and I’m so glad he did that. When you’re a brand-new artist, you just want a shot, and you’re willing to do whatever they want you to do. You’ll wear the hat if they want you to wear the hat. But Sam’s words have helped me stay true to my vision throughout my career.

I just knew there was some kind of Elvis connection with you! And sometimes when people hear “Nashville,” where you got your big break, they think strictly of country music, but you never had any pigeonholed-type sound to your music. You’ve had hits on country radio, but you really have your own true original sound.

Thanks, Christine. And yeah, being born and growing up in Tennessee, I couldn’t really escape my country roots. And I love the old stuff like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, all the Austin City Limits–type guys and all the Sun Records artists. I love my background and my history, but I didn’t necessarily like where it went. So I tried to build on the roots I grew up on and just tried to mishmash it all into something a little bit different the way I saw it, and that’s when I lucked out and had a hit with “Flowers on the Wall” and just kind of put rock drums and surf guitars in country songs and had a different vibe going.

New Orleanians like to frequent the Gulf Coast during the summertime, and you play a ton of shows in Destin and Orange Beach and places like that.

I think it’s wonderful playing the Gulf Coast. It’s more of a party atmosphere, and it’s a lot more loose and relaxed as opposed to Nashville, which is kind of uptight about dancing and just letting loose and having a good time; you’ll go to shows, but everyone is just sitting there instead of dancing. But at the coast, people want to dance and have a good time. They really get into the blues orientation of my music; they love that rootsy kind of guitar tone and that’s why I think my band goes over so well down there. I’ve met a lot of personable people from the New Orleans area, and they’re very unassuming, hospitable, giving and complimentary people, and on certain given nights they’re the loudest ones in the audience! [Laughs] They know how to scream and yell and dance and have a good time. I’ve got some New Orleanians that come see me every time I play in Destin or Panama City, and they’re wonderful people. They tell us all about what’s going on in New Orleans, and of course, they were so stoked about the Saints winning the Super Bowl, and so was I. After the Super Bowl, they sent me a whole box of beads and things like a fleur-de-lis necklace. That was really sweet.

That’s right, you’re a Who Dat!

Oh, absolutely! I remember hearing about this hot new quarterback, Drew Brees, and how he was actually tested to see if he could hit a bull’s-eye a certain amount of times with the football, and he literally was more on target than an actual archer. That’s crazy! And I was so excited to watch him and Reggie Bush and the whole team all year long. I loved watching that Redskins game where Robert Meachem actually stripped the ball from the Redskins’ runner; that was fantastic! And I believe what happened with the Saints and New Orleans was truly divine intervention. I think at a time when the city was crippled at the knees and needed a big lift, I think that was kind of God’s way of fixing things up, man, because the spirit there is on fire now. I remember a few years ago when U2 and those guys came down to New Orleans and did a huge show. I saw that show televised, and I couldn’t believe the energy of the citizens. The Superdome was on fire and that’s when I realized New Orleans is resilient, and it will recover, no doubt in my mind. And lo and behold, a couple of years later they’re Super Bowl champions!

And we’re so proud of them! So what did you do on your last trip to New Orleans?

I walked all over the French Quarter and I bought all kinds of artifacts, including a few cool Mardi Gras masks. I ate at some amazing restaurants and had some incredible gumbo and andouille sausage. I went to some art galleries in the French Quarter and saw some magnificent Blue Dog paintings; I’m am artist, so I was paying close attention to everything. The architecture in the French Quarter is fantastic. And the music environment and its history, from jazz to the blues, are all so rich. I just absolutely love it! I just saw Harry Connick Jr. a couple of weeks ago at the Ryman in Nashville, and he talked about New Orleans a lot, and wow, what a great artist you guys have in him. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I’d like to witness it at least one time. I don’t know if I’d come out of there alive, though. [Laughs]

Come on down! And Eric, it must be cool for your little girl to have a dad that plays music with Miley Cyrus …

Oh man, that was spectacular. I got to lock my daughter Christiana in a room with Miley for her sixth birthday. My little girl was totally blown away! Miley’s mother, Tish, was there, and she asked me if I would back Miley up on guitar, and I said absolutely, and they ended up filming me for parts of the movie. It’s in the DVD extras of Hannah Montana: The Movie, you’ll see us performing a couple of songs together. It was really nice.

Well now I have an excellent reason to check out the Hannah Montana movie!

-CHRISTINE FONTANA