Heather Myles - Queen Of The Highway

First Published in Country Music International – October 1998

After three critically-acclaimed albums for the independent HighTone label, Southern California native Heather Myles switched to Rounder for her latest trad-country album HIGHWAYS & HONKY TONKS and is set now to enjoy mainstream success. “I believe there are people out there who appreciate my kind of music,” she tells Alan Cackett

“Men have done it!” says Heather Myles excitedly. “Men have broken my kind of music into the mainstream: Dwight Yoakam, David Ball, The Mavericks, and a few others. But I don’t know of any women that have broken into mainstream country with my sort of honky-tonk music.”

Myles is upbeat, confident and full of optimism about the possibility that she just might finally make that all-important breakthrough to commercial acceptance for her true, blue-chip country. She may be one of country music’s most underrated female artists, but HIGHWAYS & HONKY TONKS, her first album for Rounder Records, and also the first to benefit from the independent label’s new hook-up with Mercury-Nashville for American distribution and promotion, may change all that by illustrating, more profoundly than her previous efforts, just what an astute songwriter and affecting vocalist she is.

“My career is at a turning point in America,” she enthuses. “I’m working really hard to have some success here. I played Fan Fair in June, the Opry in September, and Mercury’s getting behind the album, working it at mainstream country radio. This is the first time that’s ever happened for a Bakersfield female. No major label’s got behind any female that’s not been Nashville based.”

Myles has been seriously pursuing a country music career for the past ten years. In the early 1990s she was signed to California independent HighTone Records, producing 1992’s JUST LIKE OLD TIMES, a rich mixture of contemporary songs that successfully maintained a strong traditional feel, 1995’s UNTAMED, with a few smoother edges in search of mainstream country acceptance and SWEET LITTLE DANGERS, an exciting 1996 live album.

With HIGHWAYS & HONKY TONKS Myles has finally come of age. A direct spiritual descendent of such tough-but-sensitive singers as Loretta and Tammy, she offers a well-balanced portrait of the possibilities available to the contemporary country artist who retains an affection and respect for the music that has sustained the genre for decades. Her songs deal in the time-honoured country topics of loneliness, wanderlust, broken hearts and the bottle.

“I think it takes about 10 years to get a handle on your style, what you want to do and where you want to go,” she offers. “There have been times when I thought: ‘Forget about it: you’re not going to get your major deal; it’s not going to happen; it’s too difficult.’”

Myles recognises that commercial acceptance for her music can only be achieved by mainstream country radio playing her records. Since June she’s been on a mind-numbing national radio promotion tour, from California to West Virginia and all stops in between. When CMI caught up with her she was working up through Oregon and Washington State. Though she has the clout of a major label behind her, she is still working on a shoestring budget and drives herself from station to station. This particular trek involved 35 different stations all the way up the coast. After a five-day break at home, she was off again, this time all the way from California to New York.

“If you ever saw that movie with Loretta Lynn and her husband driving around, that’s exactly like what I do, except I don’t have a husband driving me around. I wish I did!” she laughs heartily.

This is a whole new ballgame for the Southern California native, who originally planned to be a jockey and still rides. Born on a ranch in Southern California, she grew up in Texas, returning to California in the mid-1980s with an avowed ambition  to kickstart her musical career. Possessing a voice that oozes hillbilly twang and rejects stale sterility, she was set to become the queen of the alternative country movement almost before the term had been coined.

Dubbed a sort of Dwight Yoakam in female clothing, she became the first girl singer to be signed to HighTone. Label bosses Harry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg were initially reluctant to sign her. It transpired that both executives had experienced earlier problems with female acts but, bowled over by Myles’ talent as both a singer and writer, they signed the feisty honky-tonker. After completing her first album for the label, she promptly jetted off to Europe. “I’m different from most artists,” she explains. “I went to England, almost by accident, and found that audiences over there liked my traditional-styled music.”

After touring in Europe, Myles bought a flat in London and planned to stay, though is quick to point out that she has always maintained a base in California. “I was really happy that I went to Europe,” she says. “I’ve been all over Europe, but the British audiences really endeared themselves to me because they were so receptive to my music.”

“I still have a flat in London, but I’m leasing it out right now. I’ve often considered moving to London and working the European scene.”

But she put those thoughts aside, reasoning that she should put all her efforts into America and making that all-important breakthrough. After managing herself for several years, she gained a Nashville-based manager and booking agent, and when she became free from her HighTone contract, joined the ranks of Rounder Records.

Although not a typical Rounder folk-oriented artist, Myles’ roots orientation make her and the label a perfect match. While so much of Nashville is producing country music with more polish than soul, Myles makes true country music that will put many in mind of a 1990s Loretta. Her sound is definitely traditional, but she’s no throwback, being as modern and accessible as contemporary neo-traditionalists like Patty Loveless and Alan Jackson.

“I cannot believe that my kind of music is not appealing to the masses in the US,” she says passionately. “I believe there are people out there who appreciate my kind of music. One thing about being in the business for 10 years and really working hard at it all this time is that I really appreciate what is happening to me right now. If this had happened during the first year of my career, I probably wouldn’t have been able to fathom what opportunity I had. Now I realise and I can really appreciate what this record company’s doing for me.”

In the past Myles has described herself as being shy and a little slow in coming forward, but there is now an assuredness about her, a confidence born of the conviction that this time she really is going to succeed. It comes through in songs that explore the many highways of romance in a hard-hitting, yet yearning way. One of them, No One Is Going To Love You Better, a duet with Merle Haggard, will surely become a country classic. 

“We were doing a concert together in Pittsburgh,” she recalls, “and we were down in the bar afterwards, talking and I just asked him. I said: ‘We do a lot of shows together, and it will be a real big shot in the arm for my career if you could do this duet with me.’”

Tours with Haggard, John Anderson, Tracy Lawrence and other giants of country are becoming more regular for Myles, and she admits that her career is keeping her busy now. She is spending more time in Nashville, although she has no intention of moving there on a permanent basis. She says that she loves Music City and the way music business works, adding that many of her favourite artists made their careers in Nashville and much of her favourite music was recorded there.

“I’ve never had a problem with Nashville,” she explains. “Unlike a lot of West Coast acts, I actually like Nashville a lot. But if I move anywhere, it will be to the beach area here in California. I would move to Cornwall before I moved to Nashville. That probably will happen eventually, sometime in my life. I really love Devon and Cornwall.”

Her love affair with England has her torn between her homes in California, Nashville and London, and she emphasises that Europe, specifically England, figure high in her future plans.

“I’m looking forward to coming back to England, getting out there and doing the club circuit again,” she enthuses. “I hope to come over in October for some kind of publicity and promotion thing. I've decided I'll probably do a winter tour this time. I really do miss England and all my friends out there, and I’m anxious to come back.”