Michael Heaton is always striving for truth in his songs. So it’s ironic that his life as a musician began with a lie.
Heaton, 47, a tall and gregarious man with a love of stories, relates this one with a huge smile. As a junior high school student in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Heaton wasn’t particularly popular. So he decided to fix that—he told a classmate that he played guitar, hoping to join his band.
There was just one problem: Heaton didn’t play guitar at all. But his lie got him invited to a party, where he was expected to entertain. He decided to go anyway, and pretend he had left his nonexistent guitar at home. But when he arrived, he was immediately handed a six-string.
“I never thought they would have a guitar there,” Heaton laughed. “But I wasn’t going to give up the lie.”
He bluffed his way through the opening riff of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever,” which apparently inspired his classmate enough to teach him how to play for real. They spent the rest of the party learning “Freebird,” Heaton said, and from that moment on, he was hooked.
Heaton's family moved to the Fox Valley when he was 17. And that quick guitar lesson in junior high led to his first original songs (the most famous of which was “Dirty Gym Socks”), a few stints with well-known local bands, and ultimately, a solo career that has lasted 15 years.
It’s a huge gig for the songwriter, who now lives in Montgomery, but it’s one of more than 200 he will play this year. Heaton hasn’t had a full-time job since 1995—“I paid off my car, and then I quit,” he chuckled—and has made his living through song ever since.
It’s those songs that have made his name. Direct, catchy, and full of universal sentiments, Heaton’s songs are an attempt to forge a connection between singer and listener. See him live, and that connection becomes clear—audiences respond to his clear-eyed lyrics, written from honest experience.
“I have a hard time writing unless I have some experience to put into it,” he said, “either personally or stolen from a story.”
Heaton has released three solo CDs, and is working on a fourth. He says asking him to pick a favorite song is like asking him to choose between his children, but he is particularly proud of a few of them, most notably one entitled “So Here We Are.”
“I wrote it before I became a full-time musician,” he said. “I had about 25 different jobs. I worked in a print shop, I waited tables, I sold vacuum cleaners, I sold knives. And I learned from every one of those jobs.”
The song is about being stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end town: “Everyday I ask myself who I'm fooling, 'cause every night at this bar is a class reunion, and we never get away…” That song, he said, has struck a chord with audiences for years, and while it’s not perfect, he said, it gets at what he was trying to say.
He’ll have plenty of chances to strike chords with listeners at the Hop Juice Festival this weekend. Traditionally held in Warrenville, this is the first year Two Brothers Brewing Company has brought their annual party to Aurora, and the lineup is worthy of such a momentous move. The Jayhawks are the big headliners—the long-running alt-country band will close out the fest on Saturday, June 2.
Friday’s festivities begin at 5 p.m. with tri-cities band Hoss, and Chicago favorites the Freddy Jones Band. Heaton will open things on Saturday at noon, and will be followed by the Hurricane Reggae Band and Chicago soulsters The Right Now. The fest will feature an “art bar” with local contributions, and an array of craft beers from breweries around the country.
Tickets are $5 per day. For more details on the festival, check out the website.
Heaton said he is very excited to play on the same stage as the Jayhawks, and to support Two Brothers. He’s a fan of the Brothers, he said, and has enjoyed watching them grow through the years. And while this will be a larger-scale show than those Heaton most often plays, his goal for his audience is the same.
“I want people to feel like they’re the first person to discover what I do,” he said. “I want them to feel like they’ve found something interesting enough to tell their friends about.”
For more on Michael Heaton, head on over to his website.