The Upshot: Crack Nashville session guitarist reveals multiple talents, moving far closer than 20 Feet From Stardom.
BY ERIC THOM
“Close, but no cigar”, is the sad takeaway for anyone who absorbed the endearing, Academy Award-winning documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom. However, Radney Foster’s backing guitarist revels in stepping well out from the shadows, revealing much more than his ability to play scorching guitar. His pedigree is pure. He’s not only met, if not exceeded, Foster’s legendary standards, but has also played alongside such country royalty as Lee Roy Parnell, Ricky Skaggs, Darden Smith, Vince Gill and Bill Lloyd (not to mention stretching into jazz, pop and opera territories as gun-for-hire). This display of depth may serve to explain the Indiana native’s inventive range but it’s interesting to note that the proverbial kick-to-the-head – the one that makes you decide on a career in music (at age 12) – came in the form of a revelation upon hearing Led Zeppelin IV for the first time. It explains a lot.
The overriding feel from these 10 self-penned originals (one, a co-write with Foster) opens a door to a genre that’s been left wanting since the untimely demise of the many of its progenitors: southern rock. And, as many a fan already knows, the blend of country, blues and rock are the key ingredients to this sacred genre. Heinzelman proves a shoe-in, despite hailing from north of the Macon-Dixon line. On Wherever You Go, his sophomore release, he launches with both barrels blazing on “Medicine”, combining the low grind of tough-edged guitar, his surprisingly solid vocals – tempered by Kendra Chantelle’s sweet, soulful backup – and the aggressive keyboards of John Henry Trinko. His slowed-down, honky-tonkin’ tribute to the great Mary Gauthier (“Dammit, Mary”) – one of Heinzelman’s songwriting idols – adds additional proof as to the strength, lustre and slight edge to his voice, as Trinko’s distinctive 88’s pound things home. The first sweet taste of the south comes in the form of “The Road” and Trinko’s (John Lancaster’s?) delicate piano accompaniment to Heinzelman’s surprisingly Allman-esque vocal, as B3 and weeping slide up the ante while adding rich colour to a song about the loneliness of the road. “Steal Away” is a palate cleanser and a gentle, too-short instrumental that leans heavily on acoustic guitar that alternates with two speeds as Heinzelman offsets his peaceful, easy feeling with lightning-fast, Al Di Meola runs that cascade in and around the main melody. It’s a lovely set-up to the disc’s key salvo, the 6 ½ minute “Dandelion” – a laidback yet riveting country blues composition that is all about scintillating B3 and sensual swathes of slide. As an added treat, “Dandelion” adds extra guitar muscle in the form of the Kentucky Headhunter’s Greg Martin as both artists pivot off each other like a pair of barn swallows on a day off. Vocally, Heinzelman could be a dead ringer for Glenn Frey (too soon?) and the wisdom of supporting the composition with the Bougainvillea-sweet ’n’ sultry backup vocals of Kendra Chantelle and (unidentified) lifts this piece skyward. If this song went on for another 10 minutes, it would still be way too short. Cue “The Heart Knows What It Needs“ – a more traditional country track that champions piano, country guitar and speaking one’s mind as it slags the state of current-day Nashville. The heartbreaking “Lonely Outweighs Regret” chronicles another twist of life on the road, as soul-stirring B3 (Trinko?) and stand-out piano (Lancaster?) join Heinzelman’s searing, snarling slide guitar, substantial enough to almost cut through the guilt of the next morning. “Shufflin’” is the second instrumental and one that again reveals a more jazzlike approach to Heinzelman’s guitar technique, relying on the equally gifted skills of piano/B3 players John Henry Trinko and John Lancaster. Bassist Tommy MacDonald goes to town with a funky touch while Casey Wood’s drums resound with a fatness that he carries throughout the album.
Following this, “Miss TLC” proves a surprise as the band exorcises a few demons with a down ’n’ dirty rock approach featuring a pounding beat as Heinzelman and (Trinko/Lancaster) spar over a straightforward vocal about a local tease, tossing in thick slabs of B3 and enough sensuous guitar solos to require a shower afterwards. Even “Miss TLC” gets in on this lowdown bump’n’grinder. Heinzelman’s duo with Foster on “Wherever You Go” is pure pop bliss – a sizzling single if there still was such a thing. Two sensational singing voices meld on an upbeat pop song, replete with bubbly chorus as Chantelle adds some melted butter into the background. Plenty of guitar bookends the piece, somewhat muted so as to not compete with the voices. This track sets its hook deeply and, before long, you’re singing it to yourself every time you hear it.
This album remains a pleasant surprise. Heinzelman is a phenomenal songwriter, a superb, range-friendly vocalist and searing-yet-sensitive guitarist, deserving serious praise for his ability to paint a complete picture. He may be a respected guitar-slinger-for-hire but he’s clearly got the talent to take this anywhere he’d like to go.