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“Ode to Billy Joe,” Heiskell

By Adeem Bingham, Editor

This week, I noticed a post promoting a new single with a familiar title. “Ode to Billy Joe” is a favorite of mine, and when I realized that Jeff Heiskell was covering it, I couldn’t wait to listen. I’ve had the privilege of seeing Jeff perform a couple of times with his new band as Heiskell and he’s an absolute delight. His suave style and balance of the intellectual with southern masculinity are such a unique backdrop to his silvery, sophisticated artform. 

He is an artist whose presence simply commands your attention and intrigue — but I should probably start by mentioning that he’s been at this since the late 1980’s, when he released some viciously interesting songs on Sire Records. He fronted The Judybats, an alternative rock band reminiscent of REM or The Smiths with clever lyrics and rhythmic vocal patterns. 

Though the Judybats days are behind him, his new songs are stronger and more earnest than ever. He now performs under his name and, especially, on his terms. With the new cover, he turns “Billie Joe” into a funky alt-rock song that leaves all of the fiddle whine business to overdriven electric guitars- though he emphatically credits producer John Baker with the direction of the instrumentation. 

“We pulled it up and learned the chords and it became a John Baker recording. He said, “What if we do it like Booker T and the MG’s?” and I’m just sitting there along for the ride.” Jeff, I think, understates his role in what makes the rendition so interesting but his honest modesty is part of his charm. He is just unabashedly exactly who he is with no need for any bravado or affectation. 

He is more proud of his performance at Waynestock (a small festival in East Tennessee) than he is of his appearance on Conan O’Brien. He is more excited about his upcoming independent single “Back Before I Got Over You” than he is about his time at the top of the AAA charts on a major record label. He is more interested in being an Artist than he is of entertaining what it means to be a “Gay Artist.”

“I did not want to be a gay artist. I felt it was expected of me to come out and, of course, I’m southern and that made me even more stubborn about it so I refused to do that.” Actually, his “coming out” moment in 1994 in The Advocate is one of committed indifference. He doesn’t seem ashamed or proud of his sexuality. He is genuinely unaware of why it should ever matter.

There’s actually something that I find really beautiful about his refusal to allow it to define his artwork during a time where embracing it could have meant the dissolution of his listener base. However, there’s also something really warm as a listener, knowing that the artist you’re listening to is pining for a man in the same way that you are. To that end, I’m grateful for the freedom he has now to nestle in the wholeness of his many contradictions.