Joe Harvey-Whyte is a highly regarded, London-based multi-instrumentalist renowned for his proficiency on the pedal steel, lap steel, dobro and guitar. He’s also responsible for putting on some of the best Americana and roots-based shows in London through his Honky-Tonkin’ Thursday evenings at the Betsey Trotwood and The Blues Kitchen.
Joe’s love of the sound of slide and pedal steel guitars has seen him dedicate his musical career to mastering these disciplines and such is his prowess that at last year’s Ramblin’ Roots festival he was rarely off stage, supporting numerous acts over the course of the weekend. His approach to these instruments spans an eclectic range of genres, from ambient to experimental, through to Americana.
Joe is an important member of up and coming London-based act, The Hanging Stars, who recently recorded material for their third album. Some of the acts he’s worked with include The Magic Numbers, Susanne Sundfør, Francis Rossi, Tony Visconti, Ward Thomas, Alabama 3, and Beth Rowley. Joe has also had the inspired idea of putting together a live performance based on the music documentary, Heartworn Highways, a film which is increasingly recognised as critical to the development of the musical genre we have come to recognise as Americana. Mark Underwood of AUK sat down with Joe to talk about the evening and what those attending Heartworn Highways Live can expect from the performance.
Hi Joe, tell us a bit about how you got involved with the Heartworn Highways Live project?
Over Christmas I was watching Heartworn Highways for something like the 10th time with my Dad and when it finished I turned to him and said “I’ve just had an idea”. I was watching all those great songwriters sitting around Guy Clark’s table drinking and playing songs and thought, that’s exactly what happens in the late night jams at The Betsey Trotwood (a pub in Clerkenwell that often hosts live music events). When the pub closes, the audience goes home and we’re all sitting around playing songs written by Townes, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle and others. That’s often when the best things happen. So I figured, why not put on a gig that tries to recreate that atmosphere? And when I started talking to the acts we have on the line up they all loved the idea of doing this sort of ‘Heartworn Highways’ live tribute/homage show.
We don’t want it to be a regular gig, you know, with a spotlight on one person singing a song. For us it’s all about the musicians and the audience being together in the room and enjoying the music together. Yes, there will be a stage but all the acts will be sat around bar room tables for the whole evening with condenser mics on the tables to capture the sound.
For those people who don’t know too much about the film can you tell us a bit more about the 1975 documentary upon which the evening is based?
It’s basically a kinda fly-on-the-wall documentary that captures a moment in time when a lot of the artists that feature in the film were still relatively unknown. The most famous scene, one that many people have seen even if they haven’t actually watched the whole film is of Townes Van Zandt playing ‘Waiting Round To Die’ in his kitchen. His friend, Uncle Seymour Washington, aka “The Walking Blacksmith”, is sitting in the background crying as Townes plays the song. You really get the feeling that this song cuts to the core of who he is. It’s such a powerful moment. But it’s not all deep and meaningful. There’s a couple of great studio scenes. One of ’70s country-funk band Barefoot Jerry playing a wicked instrumental track absolutely ripping it up and all wearing shades inside the studio. There’s another of Larry Jon Wilson in a super ’70s studio recording with a group of session musicians. They’re all killer players and the studio has this faux woodland look with tree trunks everywhere – it’s great.
The original film, ‘Heartworn Highways’, didn’t really surface until 1981 (when it played for a week at the Art Cinema on Eighth Street in New York). How critical do you think it was for the birth of what we’re tending to call Americana music nowadays?
I recently read a great Guardian article written by Laura Barton that argued that Heartworn Highways was just as influential for the “Americana” genre as the Scorsese documentary, The Last Waltz. I couldn’t agree more. Though it’s often overshadowed by the higher budget music-docs, Heartworn Highways has survived as one of those films that gets passed between musicians and music lovers. Those underground films are often the most influential on music makers.
In 2015, a film called ‘Heartworn Highways Revisited’ featuring the likes of Andrew Combs, Justin Townes Earle, Jonny Fritz, Joshua Hedley, and Nikki Lane came out 40 years after the original documentary. Did that help provide the inspiration for the night?
I’ve seen the Revisited movie. I think it’s great. There’s some fantastic performances in there. Robert Ellis singing ‘Tour Song’ comes to mind. It’s a beautiful song. It’s also great to see a late Guy Clark talking about music and songwriting. Clearly the people who were involved in making Heartworn Highways Revisited have a lot of love for the original movie and you can hear the influence in their music. I guess what we’re doing with the Heartworn Highways Live night is just helping to continue the love for the film.
You’ve got a number of interesting acts involved in the project. Tell us a bit about some of those involved.
Yeah I’m so happy to have managed to gather such a fantastic collection of my favourite songwriters and musicians in London. We had 13 different songwriters in total. I could talk for an hour on each one but I’ll try and keep it short.
We’ve got some great women in the line-up. Michele Stodart and Angela Gannon from The Magic Numbers who are great songwriters in their own right. Naomi Larsson who writes amazing songs and runs a great women’s music collective called Sister Rosetta’s and Laura Tenschert who co-writes with Robert Chaney (also on our bill) and hosts a fantastic radio show called ‘Definitely Dylan’. Also Ren Harvieu. She’s a captivating performer. She’s just signed to Bella Union and her album is due out towards the end of the year. We’ve also got my Hanging Stars bandmate Patrick Ralla whose songs on the Hanging Stars records are some of my favourites. Louis Brennan, he’s got this amazing baritone voice, he sounds like Leonard Cohen and has the dark wit of Charlie Brooker. Two of my favourite songwriters around right now, Felix Holt and Robert Chaney, they’re also playing. These two are clear conduits. They both have a way of crafting a lyric that leaves you singing it for days after hearing it for the first time. I’m also really excited to have Zak Hobbs in the line up. He is the youngest guy on the bill but totally holds his own; a fantastic guitarist and coincidently is the Grandson of Richard and Linda Thompson. Finally, we have Josh Flowers, he’s been a close friend of mine for some time now and it’s great when we get together because he knows all the Guy Clarke songs I don’t know. He’s a brilliant songwriter too.
How did it all come together? The logistics of getting everyone together for rehearsals must have been challenging.
Ha. Yeah, it’s a full time job trying to get everyone in one room together! But most of us see each other at places like Green Note and The Betsey Trotwood so every time there’s a couple of us together we’re always working on tunes for the show. Those late night jams I mentioned earlier, they’re functioning pretty well as rehearsals. Ha ha.
It’s great that you’ve got two of London’s best independent venues, the Betsey Trotwood and Green Note, involved. It feels even more important now that so many of our music venues such as the Borderline are closing down.
Yeah it’s actually just the Green Note. The Betsey is sort of our unofficial club house. Immy from Green Note came to a sort of “trial run” of Heartworn Highways Live that we hosted earlier in the year at The Betsey. It was such a special evening and when it came to putting on the gig at Wilton’s I was looking for someone to come on board as a co-promoter and it just seemed so natural to go with Green Note. I’ve had so may great nights and gigs there, Immy and Risa are two amazing women who care so much about supporting the local music scene. I’m so happy to have them onboard as co-promoters.
I don’t think you could have chosen a more magical venue than Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping for the night. (For those unfamiliar, Wilton’s is a 19th Century grand music hall attached to an 18th-century terrace of 3 houses and a pub, although it’s thought to have originated from an alehouse even further back in the 1740s. Wilton’s was saved from closure following a £3.5m funding campaign in 2011). How did you manage to secure the building for the Heartworn Highways Live project?
When I was first looking for venues to put on the night I came across Wilton’s Music Hall. As I walked through the door into the main auditorium I was just blown away. It’s the oldest surviving Grand Music Hall in the world. And even after the renovation project they’ve kept it looking original with a beautiful balcony, beams and a high ceiling. I’d love to go back in time and see some of the performances that have happened on that stage. It couldn’t be more perfect for a night that is all about bringing people together in an intimate setting and celebrating great songwriting.
The soundtrack to the original Heartworn Highways film contains 23 tracks, I think, including classics such as ‘L.A. Freeway’ by Guy Clark and ‘Pancho and Lefty’ by Townes Van Zandt. Are you looking to recreate the soundtrack or is the evening more loosely based upon the documentary?
Yeah, it’s such a great soundtrack and we want to recreate those iconic tracks so expect to hear ‘Waiting Round To Die’, ‘L.A. Freeway’, ‘Pancho and Lefty’, ‘Alabama Highway’ and many others from the film. But I want to highlight that whilst this is a tribute/homage show, all of the acts will also be performing an original song as well as a song from the film. There’s such a wealth of songwriting talent on the bill, it would be a shame not to hear some original music too.
The documentary is something of a lament for a lost Nashville seeing as the mid 1970s was a time when country music was becoming more corporate, and the Grand Ole Opry was seen to be betraying its heritage by abandoning its historic downtown home, the Ryman Auditorium, in favour of a soulless newer venue in a theme park and hotel complex. The film is also an attempt to capture the mood and lifestyle of a group of alternative, younger musicians operating on the fringes of the Nashville establishment. Do the themes captured by the film particularly resonate with you and the other musicians involved with this project?
Yeah totally. With all these London venues shutting down and so much music coming out now that lacks great songwriting, I think a night like this is really important. And venues like The Betsey Trotwood and Green Note are crucial in providing the soil in which an organic music scene can germinate and grow. For unsigned bands and lesser-known artists, the corporate venues can end up being “pay-to-play” type scenarios, or the venue takes a huge cut of merch sales, or you get a local music night and some promoter tries to cram as many completely unrelated bands into one bill to maximize their money.
A lot of country music now is in an even more dire state than it was in the ’70s. We need to get back to the songs. Cheap hooks and Instagram filters don’t feed the soul. A lot of the acts on the bill for Heartworn Highways Live are operating on the fringes of the London music scene, playing organic music in London’s underground music clubs and perhaps not receiving the exposure they deserve.
I guess that’s similar to some of the artists in the film. Townes wasn’t and still isn’t a household name, Steve Earle was just starting out at the time. There’s so much fantastic music happening in London and I feel lucky to know some of the amazing people making it and I would love to share that music so other people to experience it too.
Through your promotions company Jambalaya Events I know you’ve done a lot to promote country and roots acts through hosting your Honky Tonk Thursday evenings at venues in London such as the Betsey Trotwood and The Blues Kitchen. Have you got much else on the horizon?
We’ve had a lot of fun running Honky Tonk Thursdays over the past couple of years. It’s been great getting acts from both sides of the pond to bring their honky tonk sounds to The Betsey and The Blues Kitchen. We’ve got some interesting irons in the fire for after the Heartworn Highways Live show. We can’t say too much now but stay tuned on our social media pages (Jambalaya Events on Facebook and @jambalayapromo on Instagram) and at places like The Betsey where we often put up posters. What we can say is that we’ll be most certainly be continuing to promote great roots/country/honky tonk music.
And I know you’re a heavily in demand musician in your own right. What else have you been working on or got coming up in future that we should look out for?
I love playing pedal steel and I’m lucky enough to have played live and on record with all the acts on the Heartworn Highways Live bill. Something coming up that I’m really excited about is Ren Harvieu’s album. I played pedal steel on the record down in a great studio in Eastbourne called Echo Zoo studios – it was actually produced by Romeo from The Magic Numbers too. It’s due to be released in the autumn on Bella Union, I’ve heard back some mixes and its one of the best sounding albums I’ve heard in a long time.
Also The Hanging Stars have finished recording their third record and it’s my favourite one we’ve done so far. It’s still cosmic country but with some more psych sounding tunes and we even have a 6 minute out and out singalong tune which is so much fun to play. Keep an eye out for that. It’s likely to be out in 2020 but the first couple of singles will definitely be out before the end of the year.
Tickets for Heartworn Highways: A Live Tribute are available from the Wilton’s Music Hall website.