This Ain't Brain Surgery

Carvin' Country with Roy Heinrich

Somewhere between a sliced beef sandwich and another mouthful of Iron Works beans, Roy Heinrich has a revelation. It's not quite as shocking as the Seattle Supersonics' 107-86 skunking of the previously do-no-wrong Chicago Bulls the night before, but considering Heinrich's line of work, it's as insightful as all get-out.

"It ain't brain surgery," Heinrich says of his chosen vocation, country music. (True to form, Heinrich pays the bills daylightin' as a truck-drivin' man.) "It's supposed to be fun. It may not work every time, but nobody gets hurt, nobody dies."

True, an evening at the Broken Spoke is no SWAT team ridealong, and country-music related deaths are way down since line dancing eclipsed longneck tossing as the preferred form of honky-tonk horseplay. Still, the ins and outs of heartaches and barstools are more challenging than, say, flipping patties at Burger World. And Heinrich, a man whose extended family is so large Miller Lite sponsors his family reunions, has been doing it since he was a tyke bouncing around his daddy's 1951 Ford pickup (specifically, "a three-quarter ton with a granny four-speed"). But while most Texas pickers break in their chaps (and chops) in a sawdust-and-chicken-wire way reminiscent of Fort Worth's famous old Jacksboro Highway, Heinrich chose a more circuitous path to his roots; one that was more Johnny Rotten and Johnny Thunders than Johnny Gimble or Johnny Bush.

"I had the first punk rock band in Houston," says Heinrich. "I really liked the idea of punk rock when it came out. [The band] was called Street Rage, and all my friends thought I had lost my mind completely, and maybe I had, or maybe I found it; I don't know."

One thing Heinrich did find during his stint in Street Rage were the keys to the songwriting cabinet, though he'll be the first to admit his initial output wasn't exactly Gershwinian in its polish. "That was really the first time I really tried seriously writing songs," he says. "We tended to more construct songs with each other. It wasn't like `Hey, I've got this great idea for a song,' it was like `Hey, man, listen to this riff.' "

Heinrich spent several years in rock & roll and R&B cover bands; as a child of the Sixties, he wasn't as quick to embrace what he called his "parents' music." Nevertheless, he had it in him, even if he didn't know it until it literally poured out of him. "When I started writing country songs, I actually didn't intend to sit down and write a country song," he says. "But I wrote a song and I went, `Duh, this is country.'"

After this revelation, Heinrich knew he had the country in him, but how to reconcile it with his rock & roll sensibilities? After all, it's a long, long way from a '51 Ford pickup with AM radio and a granny four-speed to a '73 GTO with dual Edelbrock intakes and Skynyrd in the 8-track. Heinrich started off as country when country wasn't cool, then he was cool when cool wasn't country, but now he wanted to be both. And that took a little help from Guitars, Cadillacs, etc., etc.

"I hate to admit this, but what really reconciled being hip and being hillbilly for me was Dwight Yoakam's first album," says Heinrich. "Something went `Clong!' and I went `Okay. Now I get it. I can be what I should be but I don't have to worry about not being cool, you know, it can all work.' About a year after that, I went and saw Jimmie Dale Gilmore at Fitzgerald's in Houston, promoting his first HighTone record, and I went, `Okay, this makes even more sense,' and I went home and wrote four or five songs, and have kind of been off and running ever since."

Heinrich takes a simple, low-key approach to his songwriting, rarely veering off the path of busted personal relationships drowned in Lone Star and neon. The ties that bind, and how they get broken, are Heinrich's stock and trade, whether his Johnny Cash basso is crooning about his solid German Central Texas clan in "Fayette County" (Heinrich insists the true musical talents in his family reside in his accordion-squeezin', polka-pumpin' nieces and nephews) or, well, honky-tonk heartaches in "Honky Tonk Heartache." And whether it's his originals or something off his carefully chosen slate of covers, Heinrich's appreciation of tradition is self-evident in his music.

"I always enjoyed finding good material as much as I did writing it, or rearranging something to fit the genre," he says. "I still do that. I have covers that I do now, classics that I'll never give up. I will always love `Crazy Arms;' anything by Hank Williams -- I usually do `Cheatin' Heart,' which is the most obvious thing you could possibly do but, I don't care; `I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry;' I've got a version of `Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone' that I really like; I love `Ring of Fire' by Johnny Cash. I could sit here through dessert."

Just like every cattle drive used to pass through Fort Worth on the Chisholm Trail, every country song -- if, indeed it's a real country song -- must pass through Montgomery, Alabama, onetime home of a certain legend named Hank. That's right, just Hank. "There's Hank Thompson and Hank Snow, but there's only one Hank," Heinrich says. The same week he had his head-smacking songwriting epiphany, he "wrote two or three more like it and went, `Oh. Okay. This is how Hank Williams puts a song together.' Every song I write, I just think of Hank Williams' format, not that I'm trying to rewrite his songs, but you know, they're pretty simple -- two or three chords, verse and a chorus, no bridges. I think I've got two songs that have a bridge in them."

Heinrich's songs may not be Bach fugues, and no, they're not brain surgery either, but they work. They're simple, they're honest, and they sound really good after a couple of longnecks. Plus, they're not Miles Davis or John Zorn-inspired chop-busters -- a fact that comes in handy, because Heinrich chooses not to employ a regular band, relying instead on a revolving-door pool of country music talent that comes and goes like the cast of a daytime soap opera. Still, Heinrich says, he prefers it to the more normal ratio of one guy, one instrument.

"It drives me nuts," Heinrich says. "All of a sudden you can't take a gig because the drummer has to go fishing with his brother-in-law, or the bass player has to build a chicken coop for his grandpa. So I got four or five drummers, four or five bass players, four or five lead players, and they've all been playing with me long enough they all know my stuff. It's really fun, when a group of `em that haven't played together with me for a while will get together and it just sparks... I got real used to doing that in L.A. It's about multiplied by 10."

Heinrich learned more than that during his tenure as a session man in the City of Angels. He got used to the harsh realities of the music-business machine, which, if Hank Williams existed today, would probably slap a black hat on him, make him grow a mustache, and pose him in front of a black Dodge Dakota pickup as the next Tim McGraw.

"Somebody'd go, `Hey, here's a name and a number, man,' Heinrich says. "`You gotta get in touch with this guy. He's looking for country singer-songwriters.' I'd call him up, send him a tape, and they'd go, `Really we're looking for another Garth Brooks.' There didn't seem to be a lot of vision."

So he moved back to Texas, back to his roots, back to what he knew and did best. And so far, as one of Heinrich's German relatives might say in their singular Central Texas dialect (which Heinrich affectionately dubs "plow Deutsch," due to their heritage and agrarian livelihoods), alles gut. He's got a solid new record out on Stockade records, Listen to Your Heart, featuring guest appearances by some of High Noon, some of the Derailers, Wayne "the Train's" steel player Chris Miller, and Heinrich's girlfriend, Austin fiddler/singer Mandy Mercier. All of this puts him right in the middle of Austin's current country resurgence, spearheaded of course by Junior Brown, but also featuring everyone from throwbacks Wayne "the Train", Don Walser, and the Derailers to Heinrich and his fellow working-class honky-tonk heroes Charlie Burton, Dale Watson, and Cornell Hurd.

Heinrich thinks this sudden interest in Texas-based country music is all well and good, but he isn't losing any sleep over where he'll be in five years, pretty much because he already knows. Hey! It ain't brain surgery, man. "Country has always ebbed and flowed, you know," he says. "If there's a big wave going on, and I happen to be on the wave, great. I'm gonna keep doing it whether there's a resurgence or not until I get tired of it, which probably ain't gonna happen." n

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