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Eric Heatherly: man on a guitar mission

By Andy Turner, May 2000

Clad in two-tone shoes, drape pants and a bowling shirt and driving a blue and silver 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air, Eric Heatherly is on a mission from the guitar gods.

The 29-year-old graduate of the University of Perkins Carl and Luther thinks the guitar is not getting enough respect in popular music or his brand of rockabilly-tinged country these days.

He hopes his debut Mercury Nashville release, "Swimming in Champagne," which heavily features his greener-than-green Fender Stratocaster, will do its part to promote more guitar use.

The native of Chattanooga, Tenn. played guitar for the first time at age of five. His father rescued a guitar from a garbage dump and promptly taught his son his first song, Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

"It wore my fingers out," Heatherly says. "It was rough."

However, he kept at it and made his public debut at a sixth grade talent show, performing John Anderson's "Swingin'."

Along with just a drummer, he continued to play through high school for "anyone who would let us set up and jam."

Their specialty was Ventures covers.

Heatherly made it through one year of college before giving in to the call of the road.

On the road, his prized Stratocaster nearly met its end.

In Marion, Ill., his drummer fell asleep at the wheel, causing a serious accident that destroyed most of his equipment.

Heatherly got out of the car, which had flipped over and managed to locate his guitar on the highway.

"There was my guitar case cracked open like a coffin," Heatherly says. "I picked it up and strummed it, and it was still in tune. It was so miraculous."

He vowed to use the guitar forever.

In 1996, he and his guitar faced another challenge: a weekly gig at the Vatican of honky tonks, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the legendary Nashville watering hole across from the Ryman Auditorium that boasts Harlan Howard, Roger Miller and Willie Nelson, among many others, as former patrons.

"Being there was like musical boot camp," Heatherly says. "The crowd there is the toughest there is. They want to be knocked out."

And Heatherly delivered the punch, with loud guitars blazing to the delight of the Tootsie's crowd. The label folks who wouldn't give him the time of day a few years earlier unless he would change his image and get rid of the electric guitar began to take notice.

So did Shania Twain. She hired him to play in her backup band on the 1997 Country Music Association Awards Show. Afterwards, she offered him a slot in her touring band for an 18-month tour.

However, Heatherly had already signed with Mercury and was slated to begin recording "Swimming With Champagne." The label offered to let him tour with Twain, but recording would have been delayed, something Heatherly did not want.

"I had to stay focused and committed," he says. "It was one of the toughest decisions of my life, but it was pretty simple when it boiled down to it."

He recorded the album with producer Keith Stegall and says he's 100 percent happy with the way the record turned out.

"It's exactly the way I wanted it," Heatherly says. "We cut it pretty much off the cuff. Keith basically hit red and told us to go for it."

The album provides an accessible contemporary pop country sound complemented by his rockabilly- and surf-inspired guitar work.

The first single, a slow-burning cover of the Statler Brothers' classic "Flowers on the Wall," is an appropriately inspired film noir, pulp fiction take on the song. At Tootsie's and the other bars and clubs he played before signing with Mercury, request-happy fans caused Heatherly to play "anything and everything" from Hank Snow to Vince Gill. Perhaps this is why "Flowers" is the lone cover song on the album.

"I pretty much made a vow to only do covers I really enjoy," he says. "Songs that I want to record my own rendition of. "When the album came out in early April, Heatherly was staying in Times Square in New York for a promotional stop.

He went into the nearby Virgin Megastore and located his CD on the shelf.

To get to that point, Heatherly says he had endured a lot of frustration while pursing his dream in Nashville. He supported himself with a number of jobs including working as staff songwriter for a publishing company, parking cars at a hotel, shoveling gravel and working for a landscaper.

"I wanted to pull my hair out," he says. "I wanted to drive off a cliff. It was so hard to make a living. It was just a non-stop frenzy just to make a living.

So it's understandable that seeing his CD in the huge record store nearly overwhelmed him.

"It almost had me in tears," he says. "It was very spiritual."

However, he says his lean days in Nashville did help to influence his 50's style of dressing.

"That was necessity more than anything," he says. "I was hurting for money."

So he would go to thrift stores and find enough cheap old clothes to dress the band for around $20.

The album art for "Swimming in Champagne" reflects yet another of his 50's fetishes: hot rods.

Although he doesn't own any of the cars featured in the album art, he has been the proud owner of the previously mentioned Bel-Air since he was 15.

"It's something that's in my blood," Heatherly explains.

As for the future, Heatherly says he has more than enough songs to record another album.

"I've got them stockpiled," he says. "There'll be no shortage of material. I'm ready to rock when the time is right."

He will also continue his mission.

"I want to push the envelope musically," Heatherly says. "I want to bring the guitar back to the forefront in country music, in all music. I want to touch people with my songs, to get them up and dancing and into the groove. And hope and pray (for) all the accolades and all that comes with it."

Heatherly photo at Planet Hollywood, Nashville by Morello/Ghergia