Heather Gillis carries on the Blues-Rock tradition
Heather Gillis remembers the first and the last time she saw the late Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. After the Allmans split in 2014, Butch couldn't resist the pull of the road, putting together a seven-piece outfit called the Freight Train Band to carry on the Brothers' tradition of improv-heavy Southern rock and blues.
He discovered singer and guitarist Gillis one night in a club in Tallahassee, Fla. Trucks was in town to speak at his alma mater, Florida State, but wanted to do a little jamming while he was there. He reached out to a friend at a nearby club, and the call went out: Musicians needed to join legendary Allman Bros. drummer onstage. The club reached out to Gillis, who'd played the club before, and she answered.
And at least initially, Butch was not impressed.
"I knew the Allmans and their music," Gillis says, "but I didn't know much about Butch or his background. I went to the club and waited my turn and eventually I got onstage. I didn't know this at the time, but when he saw me he was like, 'This is going to suck.' He thought I was just some chick that walked in with a guitar."
What Trucks got was a lethal guitar player who'd spent years woodshedding on classic Delta blues and a singer with a sly, supple purr of a voice that recalled the high-end bliss and low-end sorrow of Gillis' idol, Etta James.
By the time she'd played her two-song audition, she was in for more than a one-night jam with Trucks; she spent the next two years on the road with him as part of the Freight Train Band. She'd just released an album of her own before Trucks came along, but she didn't hesitate to put her own career on hold.
"I stopped everything else to take that opportunity," she says. "I liked doing my own music, but I also knew how big of an opportunity it was to play with him," she says. "And it was a great mentorship. When I went on the road with him it was like going to school. I learned something every night and he was always pushing me to try new things. I really cherished it."
It was not the first time that Gillis found inspiration from another generation. She started playing guitar in her early teens, but she didn't take it seriously until she saw the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, a three-way summit on guitar playing featuring Jimmy Page, The Edge and, most importantly for Gillis, Jack White.
"I was really interested in what Jack White had to say," she says. "He talked a lot about blues music and the Delta blues and Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, and that really resonated with me. After I watched it I went out and listened to a lot of that music, and it really hit me right in the gut. I realized how powerful music could be and how real it could be."
After that, Gillis was hooked. "I started taking guitar more seriously and started listening to more primitive blues and country music," she says. "I basically went straight to the roots of American music."
Gillis' guitar playing shows the fruits of her devotion. She has an incredibly fluid tone, channeling both the flexibility of a player like Duane Allman and the passionate outbursts of Carlos Santana. She's equally adept at slashing, brutal solos, and chunky funk riffs. And though there's always a trace of blues in her playing, she rarely lapses into blues-rock clichés.
Her singing is just as malleable, so it's a bit of a surprise to find out that she didn't want to be a vocalist at first. "When I started playing guitar, people didn't want to give me a chance," she says. "They just wanted to put me up onstage in front of a microphone and have me sing, because I was a female. I refused to sing for a long time; I wanted it to be about my guitar playing."
At least until Etta James came into her life. "When I heard her sing, it really changed me," she says. "It made me realize how powerful the female voice could be. I don't come from a musical family, and I didn't have a lot of female vocalists to look up to. In fact, I honestly didn't like the female voice. I grew up with a lot of female pop singers on the radio and they didn't do anything for me. But when I heard Etta, it resonated. She was so powerful, so strong, so raw. That's a big part of it is the rawness; it's not perfect. That's something that attracted me to blues music in general, the imperfections in it."
It was ultimately Trucks who took that raw talent Gillis displayed and helped her harness it, and he was also invaluable when it came to helping her understand the music business.
"He really taught me how to stay true to myself," she says. "Even in the short time we were together, there were people trying to sway me in a certain direction. Being a female, realistically, sex sells, and he warned me not to go down that path if I didn't want to. He said to stay true to the music. He would always say, 'This ain't a fashion show.' It didn't matter what we looked like — all he cared about was the music."
Which brings us to the last time Gillis saw Trucks, as he was getting off the band's bus to catch a plane home after their 2016 tour. "I was falling asleep in the back of the bus, and I remember thinking, 'I'll give him a hug the next time I see him,'" she says. "And then obviously there wasn't a next time."
That was in early January of this year. By the 24th, Trucks was gone, taking his own life at the age of 69.
"That was the first time I'd dealt with something like that," she says. "It took me a long time to bounce back from it. But it reminded me how precious every day is and not to take anything for granted. It made my time with him that much more impactful."