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Heather Myles: third time lucky

By Robert Wooldridge, October 1998

In another era Heather Myles would have already established herself as a major force in country music.

With "Highways and Honky Tonks," her first release under a joint venture between Rounder and Mercury, Myles produced an album that has both traditional and contemporary appeal.

Myles grew up in Riverside, Cal. on a horse ranch. Though a fan of Judy Garland, Doris Day and big band music, Myles was exposed to country music early on by her parents.

"I grew up on a lot of Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard," she recalls.

"I knew - innately I knew - that one day I was going to be a singer. I mean there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a musician."

Unlike many musicians who begin playing in high school bands, Myles didn't even own her first guitar until she was 21. Though stage fright in her youth delayed her debut as a performer, music was Myles' driving passion.

"As a child growing up I was very musically minded - kind of writing songs in my head and thinking of hooks for tunes - all my life." Myles recalls. "Finally one day, I kind of think it was a natural thing, it just sort of happened. It's the only job I've been able to hold on to."

Eventually, Myles confronted her fears and began pursuing her dream. "I was kind of a late bloomer," she admits. "I didn't get into my own band until I was about 23 or 24."

Once Myles began performing it did not take long before her traditional style of country began attracting attention. After about three months she cut a demo tape which impressed Hightone Records enough to include a couple of her cuts on the 1990 compilation "Points West."

Two Hightone studio albums followed - "Just Like Old Times" in 1992 and "Untamed" in 1995, as well as a 1996 live album, "Sweet Little Dangerous," released in England on Daemon Records.

Unfortunately for Myles, country radio had already begun its drift towards pop, so finding airplay proved difficult.

But on a tour of England, Myles discovered that her brand of traditional country music had an audience.

"I went over there and just really fell in love with England," Myles says. "And they responded to my music in a big way."

Myles mortgaged her home in the States, took an all American band to England and stayed for the better part of four years.

"They don't understand why anyone would want to do pop-country," Myles says of her English fans. "I'm not saying that all of Europe loves country music, but the people that do are just diehard followers and they just love it and really educate themselves about country music. It's amazing how much they know about it."

Myles has been somewhat discouraged by the changes in country music. "The current country music scene is certainly different than what I thought it would be when I got into the business," she says. "I'm not really into any of pop-country at all."

But Myles does not necessarily blame the artists for all of the subpar music being produced today.

"There are a lot of good artists out there, and a lot of them have to play what they're told to," Myles concedes. "And I understand that - trying to make a living in the business. But I'm sort of a rebel, and always have been. I get emotionally involved in my music, seeing as I am a songwriter, and I like the traditional style of country music."

With "Highways & Honky Tonks" Myles has made a major impact on Americana radio, a small amalgam of stations playing country, bluegrass, blues and folk. She recently went to number one on Gavin's Americana chart, and her performance was extremely well received in October at a gathering of Americana programmers and promoters at Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

"Those Americana stations out there have really inspired me," Myles says.

"They're just great people out there, and I'm very appreciative of how much they've been playing my record and how much they like it."

The first single, "True Love," has also received some mainstream airplay, though Myles says, "We didn't really push real hard to mainstream because we thought it would be too difficult." The accompanying video has also done well on CMT.

Comparisons to country's legendary ladies of the past are inevitable. Though she has most often been compared to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn because of her approach to women's issues, traces of Melba Montgomery and Connie Smith are evident in her voice.

Perhaps the highlight of the album is the duet with Merle Haggard on "No One is Gonna Love You Better." "I was just in awe of Merle Haggard singing a song I wrote. A high point in my career."

Myles says she wrote the song about her parents, and decided to ask Haggard to record the song one night after opening a show in Pittsburgh. "After the show we were talking in the restaurant/bar area and I just asked him, 'Merle, do you think you could do a duet with me on my next album?' And my whole band just kind of ducked down like 'I can't believe she asked him that.' But Merle said, 'Sure, Darlin' - anything to help you out.' So we did that duet, and I was just so pleased."

Haggard has also been a major inspiration for Myles as a songwriter. "Merle Haggard has been a big influence of mine since I was a little girl. I was always fascinated with where he got his words from."

Myles also lists Dwight Yoakam as a favorite. "I don't think Dwight gets enough credit for how good of a songwriter he is," she says.

Yoakam's guitarist/producer Pete Anderson makes an appearance on "Mr. Lonesome."

Myles says that the subject of "Mr. Lonesome" is a "spirit that kind of keeps hanging around, can't get rid of him kind of thing. It came out really cool. Pete Anderson's playing guitar on that, and I really dig that track. It's got a little different twist to it."

Another standout is "Who Did You Call Darlin'," which Myles describes as a "kind of cool little Cajuny feeling song."

As a writer, Myles is able to write from both personal experience and observation. "I've lived a lot of those songs. But I also write about just women's experiences sometimes - a lot of my friends who have had problems. And I write a lot of 'in your face' and 'we're not gonna take that anymore' kinds of songs."

Myles feels comfortable revealing her emotions in her music. "That's how I express myself," she says. "Maybe I have a problem expressing myself in my personal life, so I come out in my music and say what I need to say."

While Myles wrote most of the tunes on "Highways & Honky Tonks" she does include a couple of classics by Charley Pride and Ray Price. Myles says that "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" was a song "I just loved as a little girl. I wanted to change it a little bit and put kind of a Bakersfield sound into it."

Myles also does a standout rendition of "I'll Be There." "I'm a huge Ray Price fan," she admits. "I love the way that came out."

Even though current trends keep Myles from garnering the attention she deserves, she tries to keep a positive outlook. "I try not to think about it too much, because there's not a whole lot I can do about it, you know. That's the way it is, and I just hope that I can fit in somewhere. I have to be optimistic that country radio is going to open up and that more stations will play what they want to play."