Chris Heers Talks Townes, Recording with Nashville Cats, and Art For Its Own Sake

Photo credit: Darrell Craig Harris

Over the past three decades of bouncing between Nashville and his native Las Vegas, Chris Heers has worked with, and learned from, some of the greats. As one of Las Vegas’ hardest-working entertainers, Heers recently opened an outdoor show with Scotty McCreery, and plays regular gigs at Blake Shelton’s recently-opened Ole Red’s on the Strip and at the LeDoux Saloon, a homage to the late country music rodeo icon Chris LeDoux (and his son Ned). Heers can handle any occasion, working solo, duo, and full band with such longtime associates as former Sawyer Brown/Glenn Frey guitarist Duncan Cameron. And he’s no stranger to Nashville, where he spent some of his most formative songwriting years, as well as substantial time in Music City’s studios with some of the top session players. His newest Nashville album is called New Freedom Grin.

New Freedom Grin was produced by Heers with his compatriot of many years, Nashville session ace Pat McGrath, who has specialized  in acoustic instruments for Luke Bryan, Parmalee, LoCash and many others. The album contains 14 tracks recorded mostly recorded at Nashville’s Omnisound and Sweetbriar studios, with players including guitarists Rob McNelley (Bob Seger, Lady A) and Jerry McPherson (Amy Grant, Reba), and ACM Drummer of the Year Fred Eltringham (Miranda Lambert, Willie Nelson). Heers also enlisted Canadian hitmaker Lisa Brokop for some background vocals. We caught up with him at his Las Vegas home studio as he was setting up for a recording session with a new friend, eclectic American Idol alumnus Sara Beth.

“Pat is one of these underrated cats,” Heers said of McGrath, “just such a good player. He has his group of players he calls and he knows what works. He does all the acoustic stuff himself, he gets such a great acoustic sound.” Even though Heers is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, he said, “I don’t think I played anything on this album myself.”

Heers first hit Nashville in the 1990s, when he could easily have stayed home in the Entertainment Capital of the World and played music for a living. But he knew that he had to go to Nashville to really learn how to write. “I wasn’t trying to be a star, I just wanted to be a writer,” he said. “I was hanging out with some heavy writers in Nashville, but I wasn’t there yet myself and I knew it.” He paid the bills by working as a grip and location scout on music videos for artists like Vince Gill and Billy Ray Cyrus.  

“I kept going back and forth to Nashville, doing NSAI Songcamps,” he said, “and I learned a lot hanging out around guys like Chuck Cannon (Danny Gokey, Wynonna) and Hugh Prestwood (Randy Travis, Jimmy Buffett).” He finally gained the confidence to record his own material with the encouragement of someone who had actually seen substantial mailbox money.

“A songwriter named Joe West (Toby Keith, Tim McGraw) heard me playing my song ‘Dirt Rich’ at the Bluebird,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Man, you should be the one to record that song, it’s a killer song and you sing it great.’ And that’s how I ended up recording it and doing the first album (Western Stars) in Nashville.”

He said it may not have been intentional, but his three Nashville albums have been thematic.  “You look at an album like Rodney Crowell’s ‘The Houston Kid,’ that whole album’s got a theme,” he said. ”They’re different songs but they tie together. Some of my favorite albums are like that, where every song is good and you want to listen to the whole thing. Which I kind of started with the first album, Western Stars, it’s kind of like faith is the theme. My second album, The Road Ahead Shines, the theme is firmly hope, because it came out a time when a lot of things were falling apart for me, and for a lot of people, at the time of Hurricane Katrina. And with this new album, the theme is freedom.” The new songs span a 20-year writing period, with one written on a ski lift and one in a hot springs in the California desert.

Heers is great believer in creating art for its own sake, and letting the rest take care of itself. “If I was gonna take one group of people who’ve influenced me for the last 30 years,” he said, “it would be Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Townes (Van Zandt), those guys, and then guys like Don Schlitz – you just listen to those cats, and you shut up. And there’s a photo of Harlan Howard sitting on my piano. We’re artists. If you’re gonna be an artist, go in all the way. Those songs, it’s like looking at a great painting and going ‘Wow.’ They’re maybe not gonna get on the radio, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about creating art for the sake of doing it.”

He said he’s done with the serious thematic writing for the moment, and plans for his next Nashville album to be a stripped-down affair of “kinda weird stuff. Townes said something like, ‘I want to write a song that nobody knows what it’s about, including me.’ I’ve got two or three of those.”

You can follow the frequently-grinning Heers at

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