Exactly one month prior to the April 18 release of his debut album on Mercury Nashville, Eric Heatherly is pumped. That disc, Swimming In Champagne, is the culmination of nearly a decade of gigging in Nashville and throughout North America. Seated beside a pool table at the Copper Tank during the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Heatherly is describing his struggle to get noticed in Music City.
After facing numerous rejections from record companies, the Chattanooga native decided, in late 1996, to take up residence as a weekly act at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. It was there, in the legendary Lower Broad club, that Music Row came to him. Heatherly developed a loyal following, and eventually major-label representatives came to check out the scene. It’s a scenario similar to the now-famous history of BR5-49, who honed their craft just three doors down from Tootsie’s at Robert’s Western Wear.
“I’d just about knocked on every door in Nashville,” Heatherly said. “It was the Hat Act Era for ten years or so, and I don’t care how good you were or what you had going, if you didn’t have the hat, then no deal. Some producers said, ‘If you’ll put on the hat and the buckle and the boots, we’ll make you a star and we’ll have a video out in six months.’ I had to say, ‘I’m not a cowboy. I’m a guitar slinger.’ I just had to tell them, ‘Look, I’m playing this club on this night. Come to the show. What you see is what you get.’”
During his smoldering set at this year’s SXSW, it was obvious Heatherly is a square peg in the major-label hole. He opened with a blistering version of the surf classic “Pipeline” that incorporated a healthy dose of Stevie Ray Vaughn-influenced licks. He also tore off an instrumental medley of “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” that segued into his spicy original “Didn’t Mean A Thing”. That tune’s lyrics include references to talking dirty on the telephone and President Clinton’s infamous claim that he didn’t inhale.
Writing that song in Hollywood with Christopher Ward was a welcome break from Heatherly’s normal routine in the mid-1990s. Back then, he was trying to crank out hits as a writer for a Nashville publishing company. “I was feeling some aggression at that time with the music industry, and the songwriting community, and about how I was being told to write certain novelty songs for certain artists,” Heatherly recalled. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I said to Chris, ‘Let’s just write a song that’s gutsy and ballsy and political and everything else.’ Once we lifted those parameters and didn’t think about writing in a box anymore — Bam! It was great.”
Heatherly co-wrote every track on his debut except the first single, a revved-up cover of the old Statler Brothers gem “Flowers On The Wall”. Two of the strongest cuts, “Someone Else’s Cadillac” and “Wrong Five O’Clock”, are the kind of muscular, barroom honky-tonk normally heard on indie releases. But Heatherly has friends in high places — namely producer Keith Stegall, a senior vice president of A&R at Mercury Nashville.
Stegall had enough confidence in Heatherly that he allowed him to use his regular band on the record — a rarity in contemporary Nashville, where studio guns normally play on major-label efforts, especially debuts.
Those who caught Heatherly’s SXSW set saw one of the most promising Nashville products to come along in a while. That this 29-year-old guitarist turned down a lucrative offer to be in Shania Twain’s touring band suggests he has the fortitude to pursue his artistic vision.