Cover songs can be a risky move in just about any genre. Deviate too much from the original, and you run the risk of alienating fans of the original; too little, and people may question why you even bothered in the first place. This especially holds true for new artists, as they may not have fully discovered their own sound yet, much less their ability to interpret someone else’s. One artist who managed to get the “cover” business right — yet still ended up with said cover being his only hit — was Eric Heatherly.
Heatherly, a native of Chattanooga, had worked several gigs starting as a teen, and his first breakthrough was when he played in Shania Twain’s band on the 1997 CMA telecast. He also played many gigs at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge before signing with Mercury Nashville in 2000. Heatherly had already built up a solid image of himself as a 1950s-era country-rocker reminiscent of Elvis or Roy Orbison.
And in keeping with that retro image, Heatherly’s first single choice was a cover of The Statler Brothers’ 1966 breakthrough hit “Flowers on the Wall.” Already a solid and time-tested song in its own right — it got a resurgence in popularity after it appeared on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994 — it was reinvented by Heatherly as a thumping rockabilly number with a tight guitar solo. The new coat of paint that Heatherly gave the song kept the 1960s flair intact, but gave it an undeniable edge and swagger at the same time.
As I’ve said many times before, 2000 was one of the most boring years in country music, with nearly every act jockeying for position on the pop charts as much as the country charts. Resultingly, very little of what surrounded Eric on the charts that summer had any sort of traditional footing, outside Alan Jackson’s smooth cover of Don Williams’ “It Must Be Love” (the third single from the reverent yet surprisingly potent 60s and 70s covers album Under the Influence). Otherwise, the Top 20 boasted the likes of wrestler turned pretty boy Chad Brock’s “Yes!”; the newly-defanged, poppier, John Rich-less Lonestar on the verge of a hat trick with “What About Now”; a slick, mostly spoken-word song from Collin Raye (“Couldn’t Last a Moment”); a generic love ballad from Keith Urban in the form of “Your Everything”; and neo-traditionalists Brooks & Dunn languishing with the tired-sounding “You’ll Always Be Loved by Me.”
Not to say that the charts were colorless at this point; Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?!” was cool and cocky, while Phil Vassar and Brad Paisley displayed strong storytelling prowesses on “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “We Danced” respectively. In addition, Clay Davidson (whom I covered in a previous installment of this column) added an edge not unlike Heatherly, and Steve Holy had a similar old-school soulfulness at times. (In fact, I could easily see “Don’t Make Me Beg” as having been dropped from Eric’s album at the last minute.) And the album, outside a couple clumsy repetitive novelties like “Let Me” and “She’s So Hot,” had plenty of material that could’ve worked in any generation while still being “different.” The next single, a smooth ballad called “Swimming in Champagne” (also the title track), boasted more of a shimmering pop edge, balanced by an off-kilter time signature, a beautiful falsetto, and evocative lyrics about falling in love. With these ingredients, it should’ve been a huge hit. (And it probably would have, too, if it weren’t up against Steve Holy’s very similar-sounding “Blue Moon.”) With its failure at #46, “Champagne” quickly sapped all of Eric’s momentum, although he did barely retun to the Top 40 with the playful “out last night” tale of “Wrong Five O’Clock.” (It was also around this time that I had two other memories of Heatherly: one of hearing “Wrong Five O’Clock” on the car radio at Walmart, and the other of him playing a scorching solo of some sort on Austin City Limits while channel-surfing.)
Heatherly also had a second disc for Mercury in the hopper (at least according to Allmusic), but the label’s loss of A&R/producer Keith Stegall in 2002 put the kibosh on that. He moved to DreamWorks in 2002 and recorded Sometimes It’s Just Your Time. Lead single “The Last Man Committed” was every bit as passionate as any ballad off his first album, and almost even better with its warm, bluesy production and relatable tale of commitment to the one you love. But for some reason, it stalled at #36 — and while advance copies of the album were sent to stations, Sometimes It’s Just Your Time was not released. (He has since gotten the rights back, and now sells it for $15 on his website.) The other two singles didn’t even chart, and Heatherly ultimately left the label. By 2005, Heatherly had gone the independent route, with four more discs — The Lower East Side of Life, 2 High 2 Cry, Painkillers, and The Goats of Kudzu. From what little I could find of the songs on these discs, he seems to have ditched the cool 50′s trappings in favor of a grittier, more “singer-songwriter” sound that suits him equally well. Country Weekly also reported in 2009 that Heatherly was selling guitar straps for a living, and that he recorded a song for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Heatherly arrived at the majors with a complete package: a unique yet easily marketable musical image; a passel of good songs; great vocals; and great guitar playing. It seems that his short shelf-life on the charts was due almost entirely to label circumstances beyond his control. However, as with many other one-hit wonders that get shafted by executive meddling, I can always take comfort in the fact that the independent route is such a fruitful one. Some artists produce their best and most introspective work when they’re completely unfettered by label mandates, and from what I’ve heard of him since, Eric Heatherly is no exception. And considering how strongly he started out, that’s really saying something.