PEMBROKE, NH – If Todd Hearon were not so humble, so kind-hearted and congenial, it would be easy to resent his endless talents.
In many ways, Hearon is a modern Renaissance man, Michelangelo moonlighting as an English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy.
But there is so much more to unpack with this poet, musician, playwright, author and scholar born in Fort Worth, Texas, and raised in the Smoky Mountain-region of North Carolina. Still, Hearon, 55, a husband and father of 15-year-old twins, remains resolute in producing art—in a variety of forms—that aspires toward what he describes as an “inimitable anonymity.”
“It’s your signature in another person’s ink, and the ink is timeless, but you don’t know where that ink came from,” said Hearon.
On a drizzly spring evening in June, Hearon and his band are playing songs from a program titled “For the Sake of the Song: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt and Texas Music,” which also promotes a collection of essays edited by Saint Anselm College professors and two of Hearon’s band-mates Ann Holbrook (vocals) and Dan Beller-McKenna (guitar and vocals).
They’re performing a set inside of Rob Azevedo’s barn in Pembroke, and recording it for Azevedo’s radio program “Granite State of Mind,” which continues to promote New Hampshire artists and musicians and currently airs Fridays on 95.3 WMNH at 6 p.m., and again at 94.6 WNHN on Saturdays at 11 p.m.
Hearon plays in front of bales of hay—set pieces placed for an aesthetic effect—wearing blue jeans and a collared shirt with his acoustic guitar strapped over his shoulder and belting out “Loretta,” accompanied by Holbrook and Beller-McKenna’s silken harmonies.
If blindfolded, one could be tricked into thinking Townes Van Zandt, the brilliant and troubled bard who died in 1997 at age 53, was standing there in front of them.
For Hearon, Van Zandt’s songwriting and music inspires him creatively. “As [Van Zandt] aged, his music simplified and he began to achieve that condition of anonymity,” Hearon said. “He makes me think that the great arc of art moves toward simplicity.”
As an artist, Hearon has dabbled in multiple mediums throughout his life, publishing three books of poetry and a novella titled “Do Geese See God” (2021). He has also written and produced numerous plays while establishing the Bridge Theater Company in Boston.
Meanwhile, Hearon’s second studio,“Yodelady” (The first album “Border Radio” is available on all streaming platforms) will be released on Aug. 5.
“Creation feels like something I must do and is largely the reason I’m on this earth,” said Hearon. “I like to make stuff, and I enjoy exploring the forms that things can be made in. But the artist is always secondary and, in some ways, accidental to the creation.”
With Hearon, the need to create came early and was inspired by his mother, who is also a musician, and his exposure to folk music. At 13 years old, he began writing his own songs while simultaneously following his interests in stories and poetry.
While working on a bachelor’s degree in English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Hearon played bass in a band named The Spin, an alternative-rock quartet who recorded four albums while sustaining themselves solely through their musical endeavors in the mid-90s.
In fact, The Spin came close to signing with Warner Brothers, but a record deal never manifested, and the band members decided to part ways.
“The experience with The Spin was a fault line in my life,” Hearon said. “There was everything before, and then everything that came after.”
After splitting with The Spin, Hearon decided to relocate to New England where he “wanted to be a poet.” He earned a master’s degree in Irish studies from Boston College—Hearon mentioned the Irish poet W.B. Yeats as a seminal influence for him—and went on to complete his doctorate degree at Boston University, where he also met his wife and the love of his life.
“I knew something was calling me,” he said. “I knew I had to get to [Boston] for a reason. As it turned out, I met my wife in graduate school, and my journey east was in order to bring my twins into the world. I believe in cosmic connections, and I have a number of incidences to confirm that I’m in the right place.”
While setting his music aside for more than two decades, poetry stood in the forefront of Hearon’s creative pursuits, and he succeeded swimmingly as a bard, winning the Crab Apple Poetry Series Award and publishing his first collection of poems “Strange Land” in 2010.
In 2015, he published his second book of poetry “No Other Gods,” which was published by Salmon Poetry, and in 2022, his third collection, “Crows in Eden” was released by the same publisher.
Meanwhile, Hearon accumulated numerous literary accolades, including the PEN/New England “Discovery” Award and the Friends of Literature Prize awarded by The Poetry Foundation.
Hearon said that while he can see some overlapping between the genres of poetry and songwriting, he noted some significant differences. “The poem has to be its own self-contained organism while the song needs to be performed in front of an audience in order to find its fullest manifestation,” he said.
For Hearon, his experiences with theater and writing plays were the bridge between poetry and the song. “The play also exists in its fullest manifestation in front of an audience,” he added.
In 2016, Hearon purchased an acoustic guitar from a 90-year-old woman in South Carolina, and he named the instrument “Myrtle.” Since running into Myrtle, Hearon said the songs have come fast and furious from the old guitar.
“I co-write with Myrtle now and believe that she has the songs in her,” said Hearon. “She has melodies, chord progressions and phrasing that I never would have thought of. She has songs she wants to express, and I’m just trying to keep up with wherever she’s going.”
And while Hearon tries to keep up with Myrtle, the poetry, stories and plays have been temporarily pushed aside, yet certainly not abandoned.
But Hearon takes it in stride. “I wanted a guitar that with which [or whom?] I could live out the rest of my life, and Myrtle is that guitar,” he said.
The band closes with an “inimitable” version of “Waiting Around to Die,” one of Van Zandt’s more sullen songs of loss and addiction—a song that brings this correspondent to the brink of tears, recalling…well, some darker times in my life.
But that’s the beauty and the simplicity of art: It makes you feel something deeply while reminding you of all the shared experiences that make us human.
In this moment, it’s almost as if Hearon and his band have disappeared; it’s almost as if they’ve become anonymous.
Below: Enjoy the full hour-long Pembroke City Limits Tribute to Townes Van Zandt. (director/producer Nick Serafin)