Truck driver Earl Heatherly of Chattanooga, Tenn., was driving down the street one day when he saw someone throwing away a guitar. The instrument had only five strings, but he took it home to his 5-year-old son, Eric.
He taught Eric the first three chords of “Folsom Prison Blues” and gave him a stack of old records to listen to. Today, Eric is a country music singer with a rockabilly, honky-tonk sound who is well known by many country music fans.
Eric grew up playing and creating his own sound. He practiced songs by Conway Twitty, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Roy Orbison. At age 8 he wrote his first song, and he had his stage debut at age 13 in a talent show. He played in bands as a teenager and eventually moved to Nashville with the dream of being a star. Eric’s father, who drives for United Parcel Service, and his mother, Nola, have been a tremendous support.
“It’s cool to look back and see what an inspiration [Earl] was when I started out,” Eric says. “He’s been at it [trucking] for 30 years. That’s a long time. He’s 56 and will retire in October.”
Eric’s music style eventually came together, and today he performs his rockabilly sound to fans. His first hit single, “Flowers on the Wall,” is a remake of an old Statler Brothers song and was on his first album, Swimming in Champagne. These days, Heatherly, 31, is swimming in success, but he hasn’t forgotten where it all began, or the man who gave him his start.
“We are so tight. I can’t tell you how tight my whole family is,” he says. “I would have never succeeded without them. I threw away a full scholarship at Chattanooga State to go on the road. I didn’t see a return for a long time. My family could have said ‘I told you so,’ but they always backed me.”
As a child, Heatherly rode with his father on local runs whenever possible, and he remembers how it felt riding in the truck and talking on the CB radio.
“The first time I talked on the CB it was so cool,” he says. “I was sitting up on a high seat looking out and trying to talk the lingo at age 8. It was neat. My dad had his own language and it was cool to hear him. His handle is ‘Carbon Copy.'”
Heatherly’s father had stacks of records that he gave Eric when he was a child. Eric took the song “Flowers on the Wall” and “hotrodded” it to create his own sound. One night, he was singing it in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville when someone from Mercury Records heard him. That’s when his career took off.
Today Eric Heatherly is a country music singer with an appreciation of trucking and hard work.
Country music artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Faron Young have performed at Tootsie’s. Eric played for $5 or $6 a night plus tips on Tuesday nights, and picked up other gigs when he could. He parked cars at the Hermitage Hotel during the day. Heatherly played for 10 years before getting his big break in 1999 at age 30.
Trucking surrounded Eric’s life even while playing at Tootsie’s. He once noticed someone who sat for five hours every Tuesday night for three months, listening to him perform. One night, Eric introduced himself.
“I asked why he was there and he said, ‘Man, I’m a truck driver, and I stumbled in here one Tuesday night and heard you play. It’s 500 miles out of the way to see you, but I come because your music is different. It makes my runs so much more tolerable to take that break and listen. It’s what keeps me going.’ That’s so cool,” Heatherly says.
The songs “Convoy” and “Teddy Bear” were on the records Eric’s father gave him. These were some of Earl’s favorite songs because they were about his life. Although Eric isn’t a truck driver, he thinks his life is similar to his father’s. He even interviews with the media while traveling down the highway.
“I’m a gypsy of sorts because I’ve always been interested in traveling and long for the road,” he says. “I’m on a bus now near Fort Worth, on my way to Billy Bob’s for a show, and then it’ll be on to somewhere else.”
He’ll have a new album out this fall that he hopes will be as successful as his first one. One song on the album, “Road-King Daddy,” he wrote with his drummer Richard Carpenter, a former trucker; and Carpenter’s wife, Debbie, who works for a trucking company in Nashville.
He recited a verse from the song: “I’m a road-king daddy, a freight haulin’ caddy, big wheels turnin’, diesel burnin’, I’m a smoke stackin’, mud flappin’, ain’t too shabby, When I’m trailer truckin’, I’m a road-king daddy.”
Eric says the song complements the trucking lifestyle. “It’s about the truckers,” Eric says of the song. “It’s about their lives.”
Eric’s father worked the graveyard shift. He’d come home tired but still mowed the lawn and did other tasks around the house. “His work ethic was instilled in me, and it’s helped me in my career,” Eric says.
He also wrote a trucking song, “The Call,” for country music singer John Anderson. Trucking has been part of the country music artist’s life, and it shows in his career. He appreciates truckers and says it’s not because he leads a similar lifestyle.
“I realize, and wish others would, that when you walk into a Wal-Mart or other store, the merchandise got there because a trucker brought it there,” he says. “I think people take this for granted. Some guy drove all night with bloodshot eyes and with hands welded to the steering wheel to get the merchandise there on time. I appreciate that.”