Nancy Wilson’s very first guitar was rented. The slashing six-string player, who rose to great fame along with her sister, Ann, in the rock ‘n’ roll band, Heart, had to struggle mightily with her first guitar. But it didn’t much matter. Nancy, who, upon laying eyes on The Beatles on television during their famed spot on the Ed Sullivan show, needed more than anything else to play a guitar. Whether it was old, beat up, out of shape, damn near impossible to play – that was ancillary. What mattered was the guitar. And today, in many ways, that’s still what matters for Nancy, who continues to write and record and, when not hampered by a pandemic, tour with her Hall of Fame band.
“Ann got the good guitar,” Nancy says, with a chuckle. “I got a really bad guitar. Our parents rented one just to make sure we were serious and going to stick with it. I think it was $30 and we were making payments for a few weeks. It was sort of unplayable – the neck was like a pipe. You could never barre a chord, especially an F. I got strong because I wanted to know how to play.”
When The Beatles hit the screen, Nancy says it felt like the “Lunar Landing.” It was seismic, trajectory- and life-changing. Lucky for the sisters, their parents were already involved in music. Their parents only had to rent one guitar because there was already one in the house that belonged to them. They also played piano, ukulele. Nancy’s first memory is from when she was a baby in her crib, hearing her mother sing. The house was always musical; people were always singing or dancing. The new love affair with Beatles-inspired rock music fit right in.
But it took some time before the idea of the sisters joining forces became a reality. At a young age, Ann had a strong voice. Her parents would call her down from her room when they were entertaining to do vocal impressions of famous singers at the time (“Ann had that special gift,” Nancy says). When the duo together, not only did they fill in the gaps where the other perhaps lacked, but when it came down to band dynamics and working together, that the two were sisters made it that much more streamlined, Nancy says.
“You can never fool someone that you’re that close to,” she says. “You can’t pretend anything without them knowing.”
Nancy notes that she takes after her mother and Ann takes after their father, another brunette (“There’s something mysterious about the brunettes in our family,” Nancy says). For her, growing up in the city of Seattle in the 60s and 70s felt like what she imagined Liverpool might be like a few decades earlier. Seattle is a port city, so new music was always coming in and out of the area. Nancy found herself falling in a Flower Power groove, putting beads both in her hair and on her roach clips. She would sell candles during the afternoons and catch shows at night. Artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and The Doors come to mind.
As Heart began to heat up, though, the Wilson sisters spent less and less time in the Northwest. They began life seemingly always being on tour. Traveling is a grind, grueling. But playing live, writing and recording made it all worth it for Nancy (she even calls herself a “studio dog” because she likes the booth so much). It was about the group, musicians of high skill levels playing with other musicians of high skill levels. At the time, too, what Heart was doing was significant even beyond the incredible songs they released, which include “Crazy On You,” “Barracuda” and “Magic Man.” Heart, fronted by two attractive women who were also the front people of the group, was groundbreaking.
“Our whole blueprint was somewhere within the pantheon of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin,” Nancy says. “There was enough room to express some humor, sadness, jubilation – loudness. We wanted to be able to do all those things. It was pretty gutsy, I think. We didn’t want to be considered girls or boys. We just wanted to do what the guys were doing.”
It worked. So much so that the members of Led Zeppelin came and visited Heart at their shows. Nancy remembers one evening when Robert Plant came by and sat on the side of the stage. And another when Jimmy Page (who was often “sauced”) came by to admire the music. Heart was legendary and, despite some personal and professional pitfalls along the way (to be expected in a family band that spans decades), the group continues its legend to this day. Nancy, though, is accomplished as a musician even outside the rock band. She’s also an acclaimed film scorer, working with her former husband, film director Cameron Crowe, which, in turn, helped her songwriting confidence.
“A lot of times in songwriting, you can have that critic in your head saying you’re not good enough,” Nancy says. “But I learned from reading this book by Paul Simon. He says to start from a small place and open up to a bigger story, start small and then fan it out. That really helped.”
Whether scoring a movie, playing “Crazy On You” with her supremely talented sister or performing in a new project (with a forthcoming Nancy Wilson solo album enlisting former and current Heart players and other friends and players, release date TBA), Nancy loves music in all its forms. Music is bigger than any individual, she says. It’s a force so powerful and large that it’s almost impossible to grasp. Music hangs in the atmosphere and finds us. It sticks in cells, imprints on DNA.
“When you’re thinking of a familiar song,” Nancy says, “Like ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ You know exactly how it goes. You don’t have to put it on. You don’t have to play the song. But you can experience it anyway.”