Steve Forbert

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 2, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is singer and songwriter Steve Forbert. Welcome.

Steve Forbert: Thank you, Ken.

Paulson: Great to have you here. Fascinating career you’ve got, in that very few people hit the top of the charts as quickly as you do and then stay in the business for another quarter of a century with a vital career, a lot of fans, real visibility. Was that first big hit, “Romeo’s Tune,” a blessing or a curse for you?

Forbert: Oh, definitely a blessing all around. No problem. In fact, you know, it’s a lot of the — you know, it’s some of the reason I’m still able to tour and play as much as I do. You know, it’s some sort of an identity factor. And that’s good. I’m glad it happened. It’s never been any kind of a negative.

Paulson: Well, now, there are artists who have a single top-40 hit, and they go, “I cannot sing this song anymore.” You know, and something to feel burdened by. But that’s never been the case for you?

Forbert: No, I mean, “Romeo’s Tune” — the one I had success with to that degree — is, you know, it grows with me. It’s flexible. It’s OK, you know. And I, I still relate to it. So it’s no problem to sing it. You know, I’m sort of required to sing it in every show, but it’s not a problem.

Paulson: At age 21, you left Meridian, Mississippi, and headed for New York. What did you have in your head? What did you expect was going to happen for you?

Forbert: Well, you know, I had put all my eggs in one basket. I wanted to do this. And so that was all that was in my mind about it. What I expected would happen would, you know — if you told me I would be touring and playing acoustic guitar and singing my own songs 25 years from then, I would have said, “Absolutely.”

Paulson: You had a — your big hit was on your second album. And then you had a couple more albums on major labels, and they didn’t sell as well. And then, then came a period in which you had battles with your record company and things didn’t work out so well for you. In fact, it was a number of years before you could record again. Isn’t that right?

Forbert: Right.

Paulson: We don’t need to relive the litigation, but it seems like when we talked about blessing and curse, that might be the curse part of it. That, that once you had a hit, there were expectations that you would have more and probably a lack of patience for the creative process. Is that a fair way to describe it, or … ?

Forbert: No, for me, I’ve got a lot of hindsight on it now. And I’ll just — really, to be honest, I think what, what happened with me was more of a — really, essentially my own fault, because I kind of got a little caught up in trying to, you know, make records that didn’t — as times changed, I kind of wanted to stay in the game then — having had a hit record and all — and I kind of got my priorities a little upside-down. And actually the record that I made that got me in trouble in — was not released. I’ve heard some of it lately. I don’t think it was really very good. Then I had to kind of go into the wilderness for a while and regroup, if you will, because I kind of lost the plot in a way. And I don’t really mind that that record didn’t come out. The ones before it were OK. Some were better than others. But then I needed to kind of get away and get back to the heart of the matter. And I had to do that for a few years. But I, I think it kind of — I kind of had it coming.

Paulson: Hmm.

Forbert: Yeah. It’s kind of a different take on the thing, but that’s — and who knows? I mean, I might have put that record out and realized it wasn’t what I should’ve done or the response might have told me so or whatever. And I might have made a wonderful record right after that, but that wasn’t the way it went. I had to go and take it all back to square one and just play for the love of playing and travel everywhere and just, you know, kind of regroup and start it off from square one again.

Paulson: Well, you’re the one artist in 1,000 who doesn’t blame the record company.

Forbert: There’s too much of that. It’s getting a little off balance there, all this critique of record companies. If so many people who are able to do so well because of the initial risk a record company took on them — and you have to invest a lot of money not only to make a record, but to promote it with any kind of, you know, commitment. And people can’t afford to do that on their own. There are a lot of people that enjoy careers now with independent labels and things who wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for a major label that took a big chance on them at one time. And I think a lot of times there’s a little bit too much complaining about record labels.

Paulson: So, how did you come out of the wilderness? What manifested from that period of reflection?

Forbert: I made a record called Streets of This Town. It came out on the Geffen label in 1988. So that, that really shows you what came out of it. Some of those songs were angry about the process of, you know, kind of being on the sidelines, or having to start over, or this, that, and the other, but the, the whole picture’s in that record. It’s sort of a rejuvenation, sort of a, I don’t know, “Then, OK, where to from here?” You know, with some optimism. So, it’s really all on that record.

Paulson: And, and you’ve also found ways, I think, to, you know, market your music, to share your music with your fans. I mean, you do take advantage of new technology. You do, you know, sell CDs over the Internet, and you do have a fan base. How do you build and maintain that over a quarter century?

Forbert: Well, building it is, is — and maintaining it are two different things. It’s hard to build it, build it, build it, because, once again, you need a lot of visibility, and visibility usually costs money. You know, promotion, promotion. So, you know, it’s hard to do it not being in the, you know, among the priorities of a pretty functioning, good record label. But you can’t maintain it just doing the same old songs you did 20 years ago, you know? I think my crowd’s a really smart group of people and discerning, and they’re usually pretty polite. And it’s, it’s a fun thing for me, the people I play for. But by the same token, they want to hear something. They want it to go, you know? It’s not a ’50s, ’60s, ’70s revival act at all. You know, it has to stay kind of current. And it’s singer/ songwriter material, so it’s kind of introspective. It’s personal, but it’s, it’s — it grows along with the way things change. You have kids or we get into a recession or we get into a war or there’s a big oil spill or — these things come into play, so they might influence songs, and that’s the way it, that’s the way it works.

Paulson: So, you know, you think about the singer/ songwriter tradition, beginning with people like Woody Guthrie and, you know, and going through the folk music — the Weavers, Pete Seeger. A lot of that has been very political, a lot of that passion was political. You aren’t as political a writer, are you?

Forbert: No. No, I’m, I’m not. To each his own.

Paulson: Right.

Forbert: You know, if I feel strongly about something, then I will write a song about it. But I just don’t ask myself at the end of every month how many political songs did I write that month, you know? No.

Paulson: But for somebody who expresses himself pretty freely in your music, what’s your take on, you know, when musicians do take political viewpoints and especially, of late, have been condemned for being too strident or being not patriotic?

Forbert: Well, these people you’re talking about by and large are smart people. They know what they’re up against. You know, there’s a lot of pickup trucks in this country with flag decals. Have been for a long time. You know, after 9-1-1, you’ve got an extremely, you know, big jump in flag-waving sort of patriotism. So anybody that wants to come out — and I assume you’re talking about people who are against the war and saying a lot about that now. Well, that’s their choice. But they’re bright people. They know that they’re going to get up — they probably know what kind of a critique or response they’re going to get from, from the left and the right.

Paulson: Now, you mentioned that record companies — interesting era we’re in right now with digital distribution. You are an independent artist who, I would guess, sells a good percentage of your CDs either directly to the consumer on the Web or directly to consumers at your shows.

Forbert: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And yet the universe of recorded music, by and large, is sold through Best Buy and Wal-Mart and Kmart. And the major record companies are very worried about whatever generation of Napster we have now — there’s Morpheus, there’s all kinds of things, Kazaa — things that are — allow the distribution of recorded music freely — also recorded film. Very worried that this is going to bring an end to the recording industry as we know it. Any implications for you as an independent artist who has your own very specific niche?

Forbert: Less for me, probably, than, than most people. I don’t sell a lot of records. Ken, you know, I jokingly would say, “I autographed — signed, you know, to Ken, all best wishes, Steve,” for pretty near every copy I sell, so it’s a very personal thing. I’m not, you know, sound scanning, selling a lot of records through retail outlets right now. You know, I would like to, and I try to make the best records I can. And I try to make them so that some of them are — there are certain things on the records that would, I think, meet criteria for radio play or whatever, sound good and fit in. They’re to let people know I’m out there in radio land. But —

Paulson: And, of course, your fans, I think, probably feel some obligation to pay you for your music.

Forbert: I don’t know. If they get it off the Web and all, that’s OK. I have to run around for a living, by and large. I have to go places personally and, and be there and invest that time. I happen to like it, so it’s OK. But this is not a real threat to people like me. Don’t have that much to lose.

Paulson: But it does seem to be that your model, which is one where you can sustain a career — with a lot of roadwork, with a sustained fan base. That may more and more be the future. I mean, it may be fewer multibillion sellers and more artists, greater diversity in the landscape?

Forbert: I think you, you, you’re going to have to have those big records just almost by the sort of cosmic force of it all.

Paulson: Hmm.

Forbert: Because the, the — as time goes by, there seems to always need to be something that is today.


Forbert: You know, it might have been Steppenwolf or the Grateful Dead or, you know, psychedelic music. Or then you might be into disco-era, they say. And, you know, new wave or grunge — or, you know, Michael Jackson selling 40 million copies of Thriller.

Paulson: Right.

Forbert: These things really help to define a given time for people. And I think that people in a culture like ours, where we do have money to spend for entertainment and fun, the arts, you just got to have these things. So I think you’re going to still have your big sellers just because each, each time period just kind of demands hit movies and stars to say, “Oh, yeah, I remember Clara Bow.” You know, so —

Paulson: You were the — you actually came with the close of one of those eras.

Forbert: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: You were at the end of the singer/songwriter era, in some respects, and got in with a big hit and some visibility. When do you think those cycles hit? I mean, is there — are we now entering a period where people might be listening more carefully to the words and to the sentiment behind songs?

Forbert: I am not real optimistic. I talk to a lot of people who say, “Well, things work in cycles, and that it’s all, you know, it comes back around and all.” But I don’t — I haven’t really felt that way, because things are so, so — people are so distracted now and the marketing of things has become so advanced. If it’s sneakers or if it’s automobiles or if it’s songs — and pop songs are, by nature, pop songs anyway. You know, it’s a little bit funny to talk about it, but they’ve gotten it down to really marketing it so — in such a sophisticated way, and they tend to — and to do that, you have to find the lowest common denominator. So, you know, there’s a lot of people out there, and your more discerning people are going to look for — they’re going to look for things that appeal to them. And they’re going to be more critical, and they’ll find more interesting things to, to like and be a part of. You know, but, but generally, it’s kind of a dumbing-down process. You find a way to appeal to the most people in the fastest way, and that’s what — if you’re selling records, that’s what you’re going to be — kind of pressure on you to do.

Paulson: Your music has so much joy in it. And, I mean, it really does, and stuff with the Rough Squirrels — and yet I’m hearing you and you’re saying, you know, you’re selling door-to-door your CDs, and you don’t see it getting better.

Forbert: Yeah, but I’m OK.

Paulson: You’re OK.

Forbert: You know, I can still — you know, I still have ideas of making up a record that, that catches through in a bigger way and growing it some and all that kind of thing. But, but you know, as you get older and all, you, you gather information. You go through things, you learn things, and you have to put it into your own perspective, and you have to adjust to what you find to be true.

Paulson: Sure.

Forbert: Otherwise, you’ll go crazy. You’ll become self-destructive. And it’s because you just — you can’t make that adjustment. And you’re just — you let it make you miserable.

Paulson: Sure.

Forbert: You know, that’s not good.

Paulson: Let’s talk about a very cool project of yours: a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, also from Meridian, Mississippi. And, you know, a wonderful CD that is your own take, certainly not an impression of Jimmie Rodgers. How did that project come about, and why did you have a passion for Jimmie Rodgers?

Forbert: Well, I’m from his hometown, for one thing, and I grew up with some of his relatives and, and was actually taught guitar by a distant cousin of his. So, I’ve heard of him all my life. But after a while, you know, in studying American music and following all these different people and tracing back the roots of it all, I’ve — to my surprise, I’ve found it wound up — pretty well the road kind of ended back there with Jimmie Rodgers, father of country music. And so, aside from the, from sharing the same hometown and all that sort of thing, I just found the guy was really, truly great. And then the more I studied about him, the more I found out really just how heroic he was. I say that mainly because he was dying of tuberculosis the whole time he was famous, which was about six years, from ’27 to ’33. And yet, you know, people talk about Jimmie Rodgers in, in the terms of the joy that he delivered as a recording artist and, I guess, as a performer. You know, and he just kind of, you know — he had this debilitating, fatal disease, and — but he, if you’ll pardon the expression, he just yodeled through it for as long as he could. Very tough guy. The Great Depression came along too, but he kept this buoyancy. And he’s not a household name, but, you know, I just found that I started feeling like he was one of the great American heroes. You know, up there with JFK, PT-109, you name it.

Paulson: Why do you think it is that he’s not a household name?

Forbert: For one thing, he’s kind of on the other side of a big, great wall that’s sort of like the technology — the quality of the recordings — say, World War II kind of draws the line. And someone like — if there were anyone like — but, as they say, someone like Hank Williams. His, his records sound pretty good. They’re studio recordings, and they can be improved, sort of, technically through the years. Jimmie Rodgers’ records are more crude, and they’re — it’s a longer time ago. The further in the past you go, you know, the human values are still the same, but a lot of the reference points and a lot of the stuff doesn’t date as well. I mean, there are tunes by Hank Williams I think are entirely very corny. You know, embarrassingly corny. But Jimmie Rodgers has some of those, and there are things that don’t translate — we’re talking about 80 years — but the core things still do. The core things are still right to the heart of the matter.

Paulson: It’s been great to talk to you about your music, but I think we really need to hear some. And now, in performance, Steve Forbert.

Forbert: First song will probably be a tribute to the late Rick Danko. [Plays and sings] “Maybe you didn’t know him, / but he probably was your friend. /He was oddly down to earth and just as wild as the wind, / as the wind. / Rick was as wild as the wind. / He’d play the biggest concerts / and the little gig. / He always sang his heart out if the crowd was small or big, / small or big. / However small, ‘ever big. / ‘Hey, mister, got a minute?’ / That’s what he would say. / ‘Hey, mister, got a minute?’ / ‘Well, I do, sir, today.’ / Rick would take some cocaine. / Didn’t need a straw. / He could just swoop down and sniff some anytime he saw. / If he saw. / If there was some that he saw. / Rick was backstage loaded. / I was sort of shocked. / The man said, ‘Rick, it’s show time.’ / Rick walked out and rocked. / And he rocked. / Not one bad note, and he rocked. / ‘Hey, mister, got a minute?’ / That’s what he would say. / ‘Hey, mister, got a minute?’ / ‘Well, I do, sir, today.’ / There’s a certain kind of free heart / that’s never bought and sold. / There’s a certain kind of wild child that never should get old. / Getting old. / Huh, picture Rick getting old. / Maybe you didn’t know him, / but he probably was your friend. / He was oddly down to earth and just as wild as the wind, / as the wind. / Rick was as wild / as the wind.” [Yodels]

“For years and years I rambled. / I drank my wines, and I gambled. / But one day I thought I would settle down. / I met a perfect lady. / She said she’d be my baby. / We built a cottage in the old hometown. /” [Yodels] “But somehow / I can’t forget my good old rambling days. / The railroad trains are calling me always. / I may be rough. / I may be wild. / I may be tough / and counted vile. / But I can’t give up my rough and rowdy ways. /” [Yodels] “Sometimes I meet a bounder / who knew me when I was a rounder. / He grabs my hand and says, / ‘Boy, have a drink.’ / We go down to the poolroom. / We get in the game, and then soon / the daylight comes / before I’ve had a wink. /” [Yodels] “But somehow / I can’t forget my good old rambling days. / The railroad trains are calling me always. / I may be rough. / I may be wild. / I may be tough / and counted vile. / But I can’t give up my rough and rowdy, / can’t give up my rough and rowdy, / can’t give up my rough and rowdy ways. [Yodels] /” A song about a lonely little old man. “It Sure was Better Back Then.” “/ Working on a Georgia line the livelong day. / Ninety-nine degrees and only half past May. / Nailing down the metal with the crosstie blues. / I had creosote all over my shoes. / I hated it, you know. / Now I find I miss it. / Every time my little, old pension check rolls in. / Of course, I had it bad. / Not as bad as this is. / It sure was better back then. / It sure was better back then. / Working in the rain beneath the surplus tarp. / Foreman in the wagon, / twanging a sad Jew’s harp. / Passing out at night still in my mud-caked jeans, / I was living off of berries and bees. / I hated it, you know. / Now I swear I miss it. / Everytime I look down at my pale, white skin. / Of course, I had it bad. / Not as bad as this is. / It sure was better back then. / It sure was better back then. / Well, the cable caught my leg, / and, boy, the damn thing bled. / Foreman sewed my muscle up with tarp patch thread. / Sit me by the camp, gonna have the cook clean pans / and scrub them down with Georgia red sand. / I hated it, you know. / Now I really I miss it. / Staring at my TV till the broadcast ends. / Of course, I had it bad. / Not as bad as this is. / It sure was better back then. / It sure was better back then. / It sure was better back — / one more time. / And it sure was / better back then.”

“Well, dogs chase cars / and men chase dreams. / And the dog is the more practical, it seems, / but a dream can help a person / to get up and out of bed. / And for this, I’d say there certainly still is / a lot that can be said about a dream. / Up in your mind, / something you wish, / hoping to find about a dream. / Something you want / or maybe you need. / Maybe you talked about a dream. / Dream. / Well, seeds take root, / but fruit takes time. / And a dream can’t grow if it dies on the vine. / So you gotta keep it goin’ with a steady ray of sunshine.”