From the southern tip of South America, sailing between Patagonia and Antarctica, to the high deserts of New Mexico, it’s clear Matthew Heintz has been a lot of places. Right now, he’s living in the woods of Waldo County, hunting and fishing for food and living simply.
Heintz is a man of many skills besides hunting and fishing. He’s a carpenter, a basket maker, a canoe builder, a leatherworker, a stage manager, a firefighter, a bartender, a farmer, a chicken doctor and — here’s where the newsworthy bit comes in — a songwriter and storyteller.
He’s known locally as the Northwoods Balladeer, and since the early 1990s has written witty, observational, sometimes satirical story-songs about life in the great Maine woods. He’s an advocate for hunting and fishing rights and public access to land, against development and for keeping Maine the way it always has been.
“I’ve been playing music since I was pretty young, though I’ve only played out for people since the early ’90s,” he said. “Back when I started, I had to keep myself entertained during all the time I spent alone. That’s the way music used to be played. People would sing around the campfire. That’s kind of what I do.”
Heintz will give a rare public performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, at the Next Generation Theatre in Brewer, with local bluegrass masters the Stringwinders. Bill Thibodeau, mandolin player for the Stringwinders and a music teacher at Main Street Music Studios in Bangor, has known Heintz for more than a decade, first encountering him at a bluegrass festival in the early ’90s.
“I was so captivated by this guy who was playing all these great songs that I had to get to know him,” said Thibodeau, who has been an integral part of the Maine bluegrass scene for most of his life. “We’ve kept in touch over the years, though he has been all over the place. He’s a very interesting guy.”
If you’re outdoors-inclined, you may be familiar with the songs he has written for L.L. Bean, Jordan’s Meats, the Roadkill Cafe, the Maine State Department of Conservation and the Maine Warden Service. He has played at the Common Ground Country Fair, and he wrote the theme song for the weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors,” heard at 7 p.m. Sundays on WVOM-FM 1903.9. He’s an outspoken advocate for preserving the Maine woods and the traditional Maine way of life, and his songs reflect that.
“I just write about what I know, and that’s being outdoors,” said Heintz, a charismatic, bearded 60-year-old. “Among other things.”
Heintz grew up in Brunswick and attended the University of Ohio for one year in 1968. After that year, he joined the Merchant Marine, and was stationed on a research boat sailing the treacherous Strait of Magellan between mainland Chile and Tierra del Fuego. After a year of that, he came home. He set off for Santa Fe, N.M., where he lived in the desert for most of the 1970s. He had a farm where he raised thousands of chickens over the years, as well as taking in sick or injured birds and nursing them back to health.
“I took an oath of poverty 40 years ago, and I’ve never broken it,” said Heintz. “I’ve never seen the need to live extravagantly; I’ve always wanted to live off the land. I don’t need a lot of stuff.”
In the early ’80s he moved back to Ohio, where he worked at various times as a carpenter, house builder, machinist and volunteer firefighter. By 1990, though, he decided to return to Maine to work as an outdoors and environmental educator at the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset and Camp Kawanhee in Weld. That was when he decided to take the music he’d made during all that time and start playing it for people. The Northwoods Balladeer was born.
For 15 years, he performed his songs all over the state, at music festivals and benefits for the Maine Woods Coalition. He also got married and had a son, the now-12-year-old Wolfgang. Feeling the need to break out and try something totally different, Heintz, his then-wife and their son decided to go far away — as far away as they could get. To the other side of the Earth, in fact, to Tasmania, in Australia, where the family lived from 2006 to 2008.
“It was amazing. It was the best time of my life,” said Heintz. “The fishing there is amazing. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like another planet.”
He and his wife separated, and Heintz returned to Maine late in 2008. He’s been getting back into the rhythm of life in Maine, living out of his van and spending as much time as possible with his son. Earlier this year, he began performing again. Over the summer, he recorded, with Thibodeau at Main Street Music Studios, an EP of some of his favorite songs, titled “Return From Tazi-Land,” which will be available at Saturday’s show.
“It’s not something I’ve ever planned to get rich on,” said Heintz. “It’s just what I do, and how I feel.”
Matthew Heintz the Northwoods Balladeer will open for the Stringwinders at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, at the Next Generation Theater on Center Street in Brewer. Tickets are $10 at the door.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MATTHEW HEINTZ
Matthew Heintz, the Northwoods Balladeer, poses with the canoe and baskets he has made. He will perform at the Next Generation Theater in Brewer on Saturday.