PHIL HEYWOOD'S Banks of the River
By Gloria Goodwin Raheja
Phil Heywood, one of the Twin Cities premier fingerstyle guitarists, has just released his fourth solo guitar album, Banks of the River. He is perhaps unique among contemporary players in the way he melds the straightforward yet sophisticated sensibility and technique of the country blues guitarists with a virtuosic attention to tone, dynamics, and textural density. Banks of the River includes nine original compositions and tunes by Lead Belly, the Reverend Gary Davis, John Fahey, and Leo Kottke (and some acknowledged inspiration from Bo Carter and Wes Montgomery). But the remarkable and unmistakable Heywood command of the instrument and uncommon level of taste and musical intensity are evident throughout the album. We spoke with Phil Heywood a week or two before his CD release concert at the Cedar Cultural Center on May 1.
Q. Could you tell us something about the music that has most inspired you in the creation of this CD? The album includes two John Fahey tunes for example, and a tribute to him.
A. There is a significant Fahey stamp on this album -- my tribute piece, "So Long John," Faheys "Stompin Tonight On the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border," and the two-part medley at the end, "Sligo River Blues/Spanish Dance." I balked at including so much Fahey for quite a while -- I generally dont like to include more than one piece by any particular artist. "Stompin Tonight" wasnt in my original sequence, it was sort of an alternate. But I changed my mind after a couple of people argued adamantly that it was too strong to omit. I considered dropping the Sligo River medley, but thought it worked well in concluding the album. The primary thing for me in these considerations is the sequence, the way the tunes flow from one to the next, and the way the album progresses and feels as a whole. And I decided that all that Fahey influence works. In fact, "So Long John" and "Stompin Tonight" -- two long tunes back-to-back in the middle of the sequence -- feel like the heart of the album to me now, kind of like topping the crest of a hill.
Also, I was conscious during the conception of this album that it was in some measure a kind of homage, that I was pulling together and taking stock of the musical sources which have driven my twenty years of public performing, and acknowledging this American guitar phenomenon. And hopefully adding something to it. The title, Banks of the River, is also a reference to that, an image of gleaning things from the shore and occasionally tossing something back into the flow.
Q. Can you say more about what you just referred to as "this American guitar phenomenon," and how it relates to your own music and your own approach to guitar?
A. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, Ill say that my way of playing comes from two main branches of the guitar tree: the country bluesmen from the South who were first recorded in the 20s and 30s and "rediscovered" in the 60s, and the instrumental guitar "big bang" initiated by Leo Kottke and John Fahey in the late 60s and 70s. Back in my teens, I wanted something that was solo guitar music but which had a rockin rhythm. Country blues was it. So was the Kottke/Fahey stuff, which had the added dimension (for me) of being primarily instrumental music, and which contained, along with the rockin rhythm, some of the drama and gravity of classical music, but in a different framework, the framework of American traditions in folk, blues and jazz. Steel-string guitar, yet played solo in a concert setting. Great stuff, and practically unheard of before the 60s and early 70s.
Ive written elsewhere (philheywood.com) about learning songs from particular guitarists repertoires and how that helped me progress as a player. Basically it can almost be boiled down to what the guitarist is doing with his or her thumb: Lead Bellys big bass runs, Big Bill Broonzys steady dampened bass chomping on one string while riffing on the others, Mississippi John Hurts alternating bass notes while plucking the melody with the other fingers. If you go far enough, even in "folk" music, what you eventually strive for is the same thing classical guitarists strive for -- greater thumb and finger independence. In my case the songs of Rev. Gary Davis and the Bahamian Joseph Spence especially encouraged this I think.
What is good about the country blues players is that, in general, they do not fall into the trap of repetitive right hand pattern picking, as so many folk musicians do. They may not vary their attack to the degree that a classical player will, but they do pay attention to tonal variation, enunciation and so forth, so their guitars "talk." The right hand is varying things all the time, as part of the narrative.
Its taken me a while to realize it, but tuning into the internal dynamics or narrative potential of an instrumental piece is perhaps where my most important growth has occurred in recent years, and hopefully that shows on this new album at least, and maybe on the last one too. Most of my tunes are pretty simple as far as chord structure and left hand positions go. Its what the right hand does that makes them work; tone and dynamics tell the story.
Q. Over the years you've recorded two tunes that acknowledge an inspiration from piano players, "Willies" on Some Summer Day, and "Strange Fate" on your new CD. Can you tell us something about that?
A. Duck Baker advises guitar
composers to listen to lots of music played on other instruments,
I suppose to hear non-guitaristic ways to combine notes, approach
progressions, etc. I dont put myself on a conscious program,
but like Duck I really enjoy piano. Its that dynamic range and
textural density you can get from the instrument. Locally my favorite
pianist is Willie Murphy -- hes the rhythm king. Also like Duck,
I really love the music of South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim,
and thanks to Lowell Pickett and the Dakota Bar and Grill, Ive
been able to hear him up close a couple times in the last three or
four years. He has such a weighty touch -- I dont mean heavy
-- but grave and stately, its beautiful. He does this stately
rhythm thing that gets me every time.
Q. Banks of the River has a remarkable richness and clarity of tone. Can you tell us something about the process of recording the CD?
A. First off, Ill publicly thank Dakota Dave Hull, who engineered the recording, for making it so easy and painless to produce this album. Im not one who especially looks forward to going into the studio, because it can be difficult to make the songs "happen" there. And I know Ill be in for a period of obsession and hairpulling. Dave reminded me several times over the last year or two that his studio was available and set up nicely for solo guitar and that hed be happy to have me check it out. I know Dave is a real tone man, and Ive always liked the sound of his own recordings. I think its fair to say hes a purist when it comes to acoustic tone. I know from past projects of mine that Im happier just playing the guitar and putting a lot of trust in the engineer to get a nice sound, rather than getting too involved in a lot of second-guessing and anxious doubting and excessive pickiness. Therell be enough of that regardless, but its crucial to be able to trust the engineer, respect his or her answers to your questions, and go with it. Dave provided that. He was firm in places where I was wishy-washy, and he was hands-off in places where I knew what I wanted. So we worked well together. Plus his studio is only a few blocks from my house. You shouldnt underestimate the power of convenience as a motivating force in my case.
Q. Youre originally from Iowa. What has it been like to work here in the Twin Cities as a guitarist?
A. This is a great town if your thing is acoustic guitar. Per capita we must have one of the highest concentrations of unique and exceptional players anywhere. And for someone like me who doesnt hit the road very often, it's really nice to feel that I'm part of a local scene that includes players, informed listeners, great guitar shops, some lively venues with passionate bookers and promoters of acoustic music, and sympathetic radio hosts such as we have at KFAI and MPRs Morning Show. I certainly dont take it for granted.