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Ear to the Ground: Tom Heyman’s “Black Top”

The Bay Area’s go-to pedal-steel man cuts smoldering, J.J. Cale-style grooves on his new pawnshop-gear-powered album.

If you’ve seen any number of rootsy San Francisco bands since the late ’90s, there’s a good chance Tom Heyman was in one of them. He’s usually the first on the go-to list when anyone in Northern California needs accompaniment from a top-shelf pedal-steel player—or if you need someone to help arrange your sprawling soul review. He’ll even bring his guitar along and play the rhythm and lead parts of two guys. Heyman has played and/or recorded with folks like John Doe, Paula Frazer, John Vanderslice, Girls, Bart Davenport, David Dondero, Mojo Nixon, Chuck Prophet, the Court & Spark and Penelope Houston (to name a few).

Heyman’s own material resonates with the rich tones of a guy who knows what sounds best in front of a microphone. His bourbon baritone voice is weathered, sometimes breaking up with the angst of a brewing bar fight, other times whisper-singing with the weary hiss of a guy who won the very brawl he tried to stop in the first place. Heyman’s knack for penning arresting narratives is shoehorned somewhere between the darker corners of Gordon Lightfoot and the boiler room of Mark Lanegan. His 2005 album, Deliver Me, was championed in British music magazines MOJO and Uncut, landing a handful of his songs on soundtracks to television shows such as True Blood, Justified, and Damages.

“Black Top”—the first song from his fourth solo album, That Cool Blue Feeling—best exemplifies Heyman in his element: He’s got a penchant for turning that slow-burning J.J. Cale boogie into his own smoldering groove. He cut “Black Top” and Blue Feeling’s nine other songs in four days, start to finish, armed with a quiver of weird old pawnshop gear—including a Harmony H1260 Sovereign acoustic that’s so wide he can’t find a hardshell case for it, a Kay Truetone archtop, a Teisco “Sharkfin” solidbody, and a vintage Airline 9004 amp. Check out the amazingly subtle tremolo undulating from this baby’s stock 15" speaker!

<a href="" _cke_saved_href="">That Cool Blue Feeling by Tom Heyman</a>