By Billy Keith Bucher
Over the last few years, there has been a new era of art and music brewing in the small East Texas town of Ben Wheeler. Not so long ago, the town was almost extinct except for a few businesses. Then, through the efforts of a retired oil and gas man named Brooks Gremmels and his wife Rese who had lived nearby in their hometown of Tyler, Texas, Ben Wheeler began a rebirth. Brooks, in particular, had plans for bringing vitality back to the town. Sadly, Brooks died in January of 2014, in his early seventies, of pancreatic cancer; but still a good deal of his dreams had been fulfilled and the work on various projects had begun. But this was only the beginning for local musicians, artists and craftsman who had also begun realizing their newly-spurred dreams. The genre is quickly growing in its creativity and its scope. And the fans are coming from farther distances to hear a touch of what is becoming this unique Ben Wheeler creativity.
I first heard of Ben Wheeler while I was in Dallas a bit over a year ago. Two of my favorite pickers, guitarist Guthrie Kennard and pianist Julie Bonk played a date down at The Forge. I didn’t think I’d ever catch up with them, but when I finally moved to the town of Malakoff, which was near to Athens, I knew I was getting closer to my goal.
The first night I ever visited Ben Wheeler was a night when I went to The Forge and caught a powerful young singer named Heather Little. She is a local favorite and whenever she is there, the house it is packed. You can tell that the waitresses love her as well, because they, knowing all the lyrics to her songs, sing along with her. Heather was playing that night with Bridgette Tatum, a singer/songwriter from Nashville. They were having a great time with something which has become so common in Ben Wheeler. It’s a good old song swap.
“Yes, that was in August,” Heather recalled in a recent interview. “Bridgette is great. We are very good friends and we’ll also be doing another of those shows this summer. She and I are also playing a place in Utah, a resort with a Las Vegas kind of feeling to it. That will be fun, for sure, but I don’t often get to run off like that too much, because I need to stay pretty close to where my kids are. That’s important to them and to me.
“But it’s always fun for me to work with other artists like Bridgette. She is a great writer. Perhaps her best-known song, so far, has been the song she did for Jason Aldeen called “She’s Country.”
Heather also plays often with singer/songwriter Matt Bradshaw at The Forge. Matt has his own very good CD called Rough, Tired and Blue. Heather lent her voice on several of the songs. At the same time, Heather had her CD named Wings Like These. It’s a great album of eight songs containing some humorous stories like “The Rent.”
“Bridgette reminds me a lot of Matt,” Heather continued. “No matter where you see either of them, they are always the same. Like if you see either of them playing at The Forge one evening and then you see them the next morning, they’ll be just the same. They’ll talk the same, act the same, think the same. Neither of them have the notion that they have to go and play the roles of being the singer/songwriter on stage now or off. No, they are just 100% the exact same person at all time,” Heather chuckled.
“I mean,” she added, “none of us could stop songwriting if we tried. Songwriting is kind of like that. You kind of write to the right of reality or write to the left of reality.
“The reason why I actually moved to East Texas was the fact that Miranda Lambert and I had started writing together,” explained Heather. “And, at the same time, my family was really short of money and we needed to rent an inexpensive place to stay and Miranda’s mom knew of a place in Lindale. And she took us over there and it was just right. So that was one problem taken care of — a really big problem. That was 11 years ago now. And then we just kept writing. Then. suddenly, all at the same time, she recorded a song that we’d had written together and I got signed with my first publishing company, had my first cut, and my first single, all at the same time.
“And now I feel kind of like a jackass going to Nashville and trying to tell my story when it really did fall out of the sky. I mean, I didn’t have to go to Nashville and pound the streets and live out of a car and beg for a publishing deal. I’m really, really grateful that it all happened that way, but I didn’t have to suffer as much as people like to think you always have to struggle. The struggle which I have now is how I can balance things. Like making time for my writing and for my family, too. Being able to make trips to Nashville when I need to and, at the same time, being able to enjoy some quality time with my family. I just like to keep things balanced and happy.”
She laughed and said, “This is particularly important right now because I am going to start working on a new CD myself and I have to get everything in order for that. And I’ll be singing some backup for Matt on his new CD as well. And Matt and I have both been working more with a very gifted guitar player named Craig Wallace, who has a wonderful sense of humor as well as a very creative approach to the guitar and my songs. Everything is coming together at the right time right now. And I am really enjoying it.”
Category: *- Features