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Heather Luttrell rediscovers her passion after a televised detour

Reborn Rock Star

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Heather Luttrell's father played in the bluegrass act Possum Trot, and for years he took his daughter along with him. Sometimes she'd even nap in his guitar case. However, when Luttrell told her Pop that she was going to be a musician, he was none to happy.

"He didn't even want me to do it. 'It brings so much heartache, don't do it, don't do it, don't do it.' But I had to do it," Luttrell says, whose interests run the Americana gamut from blues to country and soul. "I love it, and it is the most amazing thing about me, but sometimes it's the most frustrating side of my life."

The irony is that what many might believe to be her biggest break — appearing on the reality music competition Rock Star: INXS — for a time sapped her of any desire to make music. At the time the Atlanta-based Luttrell was just starting to make a name for herself in the Southeast. She'd even released a live solo album, Drive It Like You Stole It. The whole experience of being on a reality TV show was peculiarly alienating — from the piles of paperwork she had to fill out and the background checks and physicals she had to undergo to get cleared for the show to the restrictive environment she lived in — it was practically sensory deprivation. Luttrell and her fellow contestants weren't even allowed to read books, listen to music, or watch TV. Even worse, they were given only one 15-minute, monitored call a week.

"It felt like a prison," the Atlanta-based Luttrell says. "They'd take us out shopping once a week, and they'd have all these PAs [production assistants] following us around with headsets on like the damn FBI. I had a store clerk go, 'Whoa, how's it going,' and all of a sudden one of them would be 'I'm on it,' and they'd grab me by the arm and pull me away. I was going to say hi, but I'm sorry I'm not allowed.

"Then you get kicked off and you find out they've been lying to you about a whole bunch of shit," she continues. "And you're like, 'Oh this is horrifying.'"

After she was booted from the competiton, Luttrell had to sell the custom Gibson guitar she'd won on Rock Star: INXS so she could pay the mortgage on her house. (Their weekly stipend while on the show amounted to around $21,000 annually.) On top of that, the contract she signed gave producers a percentage of any money she earned in the music business for four years after her 2005 appearance. "I had to drop out of music for two years because of it," Luttrell says. "It wasn't like I was earning that much to begin with."

She bartended and hosted a trivia night. During her off-time, she'd hang out with a friend who favored, Atlanta's Northside Tavern, a grimy little dive and blues bar. "There's grass in the room, no hot water ... and if the toilet breaks they put a porta-potty in the parking lot," she recalls. "It is my favorite place in the entire planet."

One thing led to another and suddenly she was sitting in with local folks and even visiting artists. One of them, Donnie McCormick encouraged her not to waste her gift.

"He whacked me in the back of the head with his cane and said, 'You got to stop keeping people from hearing what you're doing. If you got it in your heart, then get out there and sing it, goddamnit,'" she says. "That got me back into it, and then next thing you know things are really going well."

After releasing Live from the Kirkland Public House in 2010, Luttrell returned two years later with her first studio full-length since 2005, Possumdiva. It covers the rootsy gamut, from the enthusiastic Bakersfield rave-up "Perfect Day" to the aching bedroom folk song "What Is Wanted," the gospel-blues stomp "Redemption," and the bustling country-folker "Road Home to Hell.

"I don't have a genre really. Sometimes I'm a little bit country, and I love to sing the blues, but it's not what I write every time," she says. "I never know what's going to come out of me, so it's hard to pin me down."

As for her father Ralph, he's happier than most parents that his child didn't listen to him. Now he gets to make a second run at a music career as her lead guitarist. She didn't realize how much he meant to her until he injured his shoulder and a couple ribs stumbling over a speed bump. She found in some ways he's irreplaceable. It's not so much his playing — though he's definitely good — it's that she didn't have to pay him. But he's not complaining.

"You get a couple drinks in him and he's, 'I'm just so proud of my baby girl.' He's gotten to party with Skynyrd and play on these huge stages. He's gotten to live his dreams through me," she says.

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