The Heart of Nancy Wilson

With her first studio solo album, the Seattle guitar goddess pays homage to friends and heroes 

Nancy Wilson on the cover of her solo debut You and Me (Art: Ron Hart)

In a career that spans nearly 50 years, one that includes induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a seemingly endless stream of hit singles, seven Top 10 albums, sales of 35 million albums worldwide, and four Grammy nominations, it would appear that there’s nothing that the Wilson sisters — Ann and Nancy — haven’t already accomplished. 

It’s surprising then to learn that while Ann’s managed to step out on her own with her two albums and a pair of EPs, Nancy has yet to claim a solo studio album. Happily then, that’s been remedied with the recent release of You and Me, a set of songs that range from original offerings like the telling “Party at the Angel Ballroom” (featuring special guests Taylor Hawkins and Duff Mckagan) and her heartfelt instrumental tribute to fellow guitar slinger Eddie Van Halen (aptly titled “4 Edward”) to a choice collection of covers, including Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic and inspiring “The Rising,” the Cranberries classic “Dreams,” a reboot of the Pearl Jam standard “Daughter,” and a tender take on Simon and Garfunkel’s ballad of yearning and desire, “The Boxer,” featuring pal Sammy Hagar in tow. It’s an impressive set of songs to be sure, and one that establishes her as more than a mere guitar slinger who belongs in the boy’s club, but rather an adept auteur all on her own.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Nevertheless, her friendship with Eddie Van Halen found her running in the same circles, especially given the fact that Heart and Van Halen frequently found themselves touring together and sharing the same festival stages. Wilson still recalls their initial encounter.

“I remember he said to me, ‘Try this drink’ and I asked, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s a kamikaze’” she reminisces. “So, he actually introduced Ann and I to that particular cocktail. We hang out after the shows. They would get kind of blasted, and then they’d start fighting with one another. Those were really some super big party years for sure. We’d always be thinking, ‘How do they do this?’ But somehow, they still got on stage and performed and they were fine. One time he said to me, ‘You play really nice acoustic guitar.’And I asked him, ‘Why don’t you ever play acoustic guitar?’ And he said it was because he didn’t own an acoustic guitar. ‘That’s insane,’ I replied. ‘You can’t tell me that.’ Then he called me early the next morning, like at the crack of dawn, and played me a beautiful acoustic thing. So I guess he found one somehow.”

As a result, it was only natural that she would opt to end her new album with an ode to her departed pal. 


AUDIO: Nancy Wilson “4 Edward”

“I was asked to do an instrumental on this album,” she explains. “So I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do one for Eddie Van Halen. But then it was like, oh, what did I do? I put myself into this awkward position. Now I have to actually come up with something that’s worthy of Eddie’s memory, and especially the thing that Eddie played for me on the phone. I looked at a lot of Van Halen video footage and listened to a lot of their stuff, and I noticed that most of it was written in a very major key and it was really uplifting. It’s like when you when you hear a lot of blues music and a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and it’s kind of minor key. But Van Halen’s music was very jubilant. So that was my first clue as to the direction that I needed to go in. It should start in a kind of classical motif, then add a rocker riff in the middle, and eventually have it bookended with a classical kind of ending. However when it finally came together, I felt like, Oh, no, I can’t do this. Fortunately though, I finally figured out how to approach it, and it kind of rolled into itself after that. I loved  how it turned out. It’s very simple, but I think it’s also very pretty.”

Of course the other thing that Wilsons had in common with Eddie and Alex Van Halen was the fact that both of their bands were helmed by siblings. Still, they possessed s a decidedly different personal dynamic. After all, the history of popular music is littered with stories about brothers who rarely got got along. The examples can be traced back to the Everly Brothers’ fractious relationship, on through the tense stand-offs that pitted the Kinks’ Ray Davies against his brother Dave, and then, more recently, the soured situation that would severed the British band Oasis due to Noel and Liam Gallagher’s continuing failure to find common ground. 

Sisters, it seems, are better at getting along. 

“I think that with guys, there’s a whole different ego scenario in play,” Wilson muses. “Male singers essentially need to be pretty egocentric in order to fill the shoes of what people expect a front person to be. So when you have two people on the same stage that are siblings, there might be some real conflict, and a real jealousy thing that goes on. From what I’ve read about John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were like brothers. Yet they referred to their relationship as being like a married couple. They had that kind of friction. They had a particular competition in between them. There’s often that thing with guys where one person is trying to get the better of the other. It’s kind of like a tug of war. But with women, it’s usually only one, and not two of you out there. So we were lucky in that way. We had each other to talk to and to lean on. We could help each other to get through it .”


VIDEO: Heart live on KSWU’s The Second Ending 1976

It follows then that the relationship between the two sisters helped Heart to persevere, despite the myriad of personnel changes that transpired over the course of the band’s career.

“We know each other very well, being that we’re siblings,” she explains. “But even so, we’re not the same person at all. We’re two very different people. However, we understand each other’s differences well enough that we can support each other in our differences. Being able to read each other’s mind and finish each other’s sentences is all part of being a sister, I think. It works really well for us, and we worked our asses off to make it work. We don’t quibble over things that don’t matter. Instead, we chose to craft things that we thought were gonna matter to the world.”




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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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