For more than twenty years Eric Heywood has been on the Americana front lines, playing pedal steel and guitar with bands and artists like Son Volt, The Jayhawks, John Doe and Joe Henry. You’ve seen him, more likely than not, hiding beneath a huge hat, perched over a Williams pedal steel at the extreme left edge of the stage with Ray Lamontagne on Live from The Artists Den or in the Live in London video with Pretenders. I’m particularly fond of his work on Jim White’s Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See (produced by Joe Henry and Tucker Martine). Eric’s busy schedule has been filled with a lot of Tift Merritt and Jay Farrar, recently; we caught up with him on the road with the latter when they swung through Seattle on tour in support of the 20th Anniversary of Son Volt’s seminal album, Trace.
Fretboard Journal: What would you say are the highlights from your “résumé”?
Eric Heywood: It has been a wonderful ride, full of a variety of “highlights.” For me the high points are really those nights when the music feels transcendent and effortless – when band, stage sound, and audience (or recording device) converge and you now something just happened – and that can happen with anyone in any situation… often unexpectedly. These are not necessarily “résumé” moments, but those are the highlights I wait for and appreciate.
That is not to say that playing all those great Pretenders hits with Chrissie Hynde, or playing with Ray Lamontagne in beautiful venues like the Albert Hall, Radio City, Red Rocks, the Berkley Greek Theater weren’t highlights. They certainly were. Certain records stand out as high points of course – Ray Lamontagne’s God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, was a pleasure to be a part of, Richard Buckner’s Since, Son Volt’s Trace and Straightaways, the Pretenders’ Break Up the Concrete with Jim Keltner was very exciting, Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone with Marc Ribot, Over the Rhine’s Meet Me at the Edge of the World with its wonderful cast of players and Joe Henry producing… really fun.
I don’t want to bore you with a long list (if I haven’t already), but there are so many lesser known records that were real highlights too – as I implied earlier, a musical moment is a thrill whether appreciated by one or ten thousand.
FJ: What are the two most disparate gigs/sessions you’ve done?
EH: Oddly enough the two most disparate gigs for me happened on the same show. The Pretenders did the CMT Crossroads show and I sat in with Faith Hill… two very different approaches to music.
FJ: Do you have any “bucket list” gigs?
EH: I don’t really believe in bucket lists. I am excited about unknown future projects – creating new music with collaborators new and old – but I don’t feel like I would be unfulfilled if I didn’t get to play with any specific band or person. I look forward to most all of it.
FJ: Do you feel any onus to be faithful to recordings on live gigs, whether or not you played the original part?
EH: Yes and no. Sometimes the parts are so integral to the song you almost have to play them, or they are so great that you want to play them. Generally I don’t worry about it too much unless I’m asked or I feel the part(s) are a real signature of the song. When I try to play parts other musicians have come up with (particularly solos), it usually sounds a little forced or somehow unnatural. This may well be my own shortcoming but I much prefer finding something in the moment to attempting a recreation of something that happened in a studio a year ago… but really no rules on this one.
FJ: How much of your work is pedal steel vs. guitar?
EH: Maybe 80% pedal steel, 20% guitar.
FJ: Do you have a typical rig that you use for live and recording work?
EH: I have had many different amps and pedalboards over the years but I have always played one of three Williams pedal steel guitars and either a ‛55 Gibson Southern Jumbo or a ‛56 Epiphone Texan as my acoustic. Currently, for amplifiers I favor my ‛66 Fender Pro Reverb and/or a Carr Viceroy for live shows; for recording I’ll add a smaller option, but anything goes in the studio. I have a little late 50’s Supro (Ozark?) electric that I am really liking lately, and I have used my Creston Tele with a Bigsby a lot over the years. I have several Strymon pedals and a couple of things from Sarno Music Solutions that are great for pedal steel.
FJ: Can you tell us more about your steels?
EH: I used to have one, then I upgraded, then I bought a third Williams. Now if I have sessions or tours in other cities, I’ll ship one and practice on another until departure. They are all 11-string guitars, the 11th string being an E on the bottom. I have one loaded with a Lace Alumatone Tonebar pickup, and the others with original Danny Shields Crap Trap pickups.
FJ: We’ve featured Creston Lea’s work in the magazine [FJ # 21]. Can you tell us more about the Tele he built for you? And how did you find him?
EH: I believe I was introduced to Creston by a guitar player named Mark Spencer. Creston built a nice Tele for me with a Bigsby and Gibson-type pickups… P-90 in back. I think that was the first project Creston had for someone he did not already know. We have become good pals since then, and he later built a Jazzmaster style baritone, also with a Bigsby.
FJ: I noticed you play guitar with a thumb pick; is that something that came about from playing pedal steel? Are there other ways pedal steel has affected your regular guitar playing?
EH: I honestly cannot remember when the thumbpick came about, but if Herco ever goes out of business I will be in trouble. They are sort of a thumb/flatpick hybrid. I played the guitar first and my brother Phil got me going by showing me John Hurt/country blues style fingerpicking. This gave me a leg up when I first sat down in front of a pedal steel. Then, the more I played the pedal steel the more it informed my guitar playing – most noticeably in that I love bendy stuff, the whammy bar, and hammer-ons. I prefer gigs where I play both instruments. It forces a change that I think is healthy for both – offsets stagnation and sonic fatigue.
FJ: You’ve played alongside some other impressive guitarists; do you have a favorite?
EH: I wouldn’t single any one player out as a favorite, not for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings, but because the variety of musical experience has been such a pleasure for as many reasons as there are players.
FJ: Has playing with other sidemen affected how you approach your role?
EH: Most definitely. You cannot help but learn from other players – both things that work and things that don’t. A few lessons that seem to keep presenting themselves are the importance of listening/ attentiveness, the power of simplicity… relaxation with intensity… confidence with humility. I have had the great pleasure of performing and recording with Jay Bellerose on drums and I would say I have learned more from him than just about anyone. He listens and supports so well that playing becomes effortless and everyone is allowed a chance to get inside the song, perhaps even achieving lift-off – where else would you want to dwell?
Photos by Erika Goldring, except where noted. View Eric Heywood’s credits on AllMusic.com.