With the exception of a few well-regarded session musicians (Cindy Cashdollar, for example), very few women are known for playing the lap steel guitar. In an industry already nestled tight in a firm male grip, no instrument can top the male domination of the lap steel. Hoping to shift that balance back toward the fairer gender is Megan Hickey, the lone performer under the moniker of the Last Town Chorus. Armed with a vintage lap steel, an angelic voice, and detail-rich songbook, Hickey showcases the instrument to a whole generation unfamiliar with its storied legacy in Western swing, Hawaiian, and country music. Of course, all of this was the result of an accidental encounter.
"It was very much a fluke. A friend brought over a lap steel as a curiosity," says Hickey, calling before her Los Angeles performance. "It's an old Hawaiian model, from the '40 or '50s, he thought I'd find it interesting. I went haywire over the sound it made, and I never went back to any other instruments I played. For me, that was it."
The Brooklyn-based Hickey has established the entire foundation of the Last Town Chorus around her unrelenting love affair with the lap steel. The latest example of this is Wire Waltz, a gorgeous and tender record, one that showcases the soaring tones of the lap steel as much as it does Hickey's stunning vocal range. The pair, vocals and guitar, come across as both brazen and subtle, and when the instrument's ghostly tone dies down, Hickey's voice will stop your heart dead in its tracks, the result of having the best set of pipes this side of Chan Marshall.
Despite the emotional weight her songs wield, Hickey is modest—almost to the point of self-deprecation—about her skills. "No one would be wise to look to me as a lap steel authority," she says. "I'm very much self-taught, I play by ear and by sight. I really don't play the thing with any sort of prowess." But she just might be alone in that opinion, as her stark cover of David Bowie's "Modern Love"—a version so tender and quiet that it barely resembles the bombastic original—wowed the folks behind Grey's Anatomy, who licensed the song, and then aired it in its entirety. Consider this her big break, lining her pockets some, and even getting the blessing of the Thin White Duke himself.
"[Bowie] has to have heard the song, and he approved it. But he hasn't called, though. I'm still waiting on that random call from a man with a British accent, thanking me," she says, laughing.
Well, there still is time. So Bowie, if you are out there, pick up the phone. You owe this woman a moment of your time.
The Last Town Chorus plays Friday, July 27 at Mississippi Studios; also Saturday, July 28 at Music Millennium NW at 3 pm.