Interviews, Music, We Love Music

Q&A with J. Tom Hnatow


I first became acquainted with the soulful, sweet pedal steel guitar styling of J. Tom Hnatow pretty recently, whilst listening to, loving and obsessing over the last These United States record, released earlier this year. As I like to say- I may be late, but at least I made it to the party. Hnatow is skillful on the pedal steel, playing with nuance, subtlety and heart, but can also totally rock it out, and plays many other instruments as well. He was with TUS for seven years (starting out in DC), five albums, and about a thousand shows, living mostly on the road. He has recently left the band, moved from North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky, and is now on tour playing guitar with The Mynabirds (another band with DC roots- front-woman Laura Burhenn lived many years in DC.) Amidst his busy tour schedule he took some time to chat with me on the phone about music, icons of the pedal steel world, leaving These United States, and more. You can see Tom play with The Mynabirds this Friday, October 26th at Black Cat!


Alexia: So how did you first start playing music?

Tom: I was forced to take piano lessons when I was a kid, like 8 years, and I hated it! Absolutely despised it, and, I think my Mom said something like “When you turn fifteen you can quit.” So I was like “Ok, cool, I’m out!” And then I sort of stumbled into playing guitar and thought that was pretty cool, and kind of went from there.

Alexia: And how did you get into pedal steel?

Tom: How did I get into pedal steel? I think I stumbled into it, because I played banjo and I played lap steel for a long time, and realized that what I was doing on the lap steel, there were a lot of things where I was trying to imitate a pedal steel, so I thought “Oh, this’ll be really easy! How hard could it be? I can play slide guitar!” And I learned rapidly that was not the case! I’m just sort of stumbling my way through it.

Alexia: Um, for stumbling you’re doing a pretty damn good job! (laughs)

Tom: (laughs) It’s smoke and mirrors! It’s an illusion.

Alexia: Was there any artist or album that first made you fall in love with rock & roll?

Tom: Yeah. Well, I didn’t listen to rock & roll as a kid much. I wasn’t that into it, and it wasn’t that my parents banned it, but we just weren’t allowed to watch MTV, and I just really was not exposed to rock & roll. My Dad’s like a real jazz guy. So, for some inexplicable reason, and I still don’t know why he did this, when I graduated from junior high school he bought me the Led Zeppelin box set. And I don’t think I’d ever heard a note of Led Zeppelin, other than, you know, of course “Stairway to Heaven”, and I was just floored by the fact that this music existed! So I was like “I’m going to play guitar,” so of course my first band was like Led Zeppelin riffs played even stupider. (laughs)

Alexia: Are there any people in the pedal steel world who are inspirational or icons to you?

Tom: Yeah- there’s a guy named Ralph Mooney, Waylon Jennings’ long-term sidekick, and he is just absolutely one of my favorites. And Ben Keith , I think he’s the only steel player who played on any Neil Young records, and I just love his playing. It’s just like so simple and beautiful and perfect. You know, any Neil Young song you hear the steel and it’s just like, it just couldn’t exist otherwise. Continue reading

Entertainment, Interviews, Music, Night Life, People, The Features, We Love Music

Q&A with Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds

all photos courtesy of The Mynabirds

Laura Burhenn was a luminous fixture of the DC music scene for years. She performed as a solo songstress with her piano for years, and was half of the dynamic duo Georgie James, along with John Davis (Q and Not U). A few years back she left DC for Omaha, Nebraska, and since then has collaborated and toured with Bright Eyes, and formed a new band The Mynabirds. She’s on tour now with The Mynabirds in support of their second album, Generals, out now on Saddle Creek records. We Love DC’s Alexia got a chance to chat with her about her new band, her move to Omaha, touring with Bright Eyes, and more!

Alexia: You’ve been playing music a long time- when did you first start writing your own music?

Laura: The first song I ever wrote dates back to about age 7 or 8. There’s a Fisher Price cassette tape recording of it somewhere still around. There were a string of other little songs here and there after that (including a real killer pop jam called “In Your Life” I wrote for my all girl band in fifth grade, Black Leather Red Roses), but nothing really serious until I wrote “Fallen,” a song that I won my tenth grade high school talent show with. Ha. I also recorded it and put it on my first solo record when I was 17. Needless to say, I’ve been at it for awhile. 

Alexia: Were there any specific artists or albums that first ignited your passion for rock music?

Laura: My first cassette loves were the Beach Boys, the Monkees and Wilson Phillips. But I’d say the three most influential albums of my teen years were PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Tori Amos’s Under the Pink (I caught onto both artists when their second albums came out and later went back to fall in love with their first albums), and a collection of greatest hits from Nina Simone. God, that voice! That swagger!

Alexia: You built a name for yourself in the DC area, with your solo work and Georgie James- what was the catalyst for your move to Omaha?

Laura: After Georgie James broke up, I decided I wanted to try out a whole different scene. I love DC and it’ll always be my home. But sometimes you need distance to get perspective in your life. The move to Omaha surprised some people, I know. (New York, LA or even Portland would’ve been more expected for a musician.) But I chose Omaha for the good friends I’d made through working with Saddle Creek — and the great arts scene that’s going on there.
Continue reading