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February 6, 2013


The late ’70s New York years of this Mississippi-bred singer/songwriter
offer glimpse into the soul of renegade artist.
Reissue package contains liner notes by David Wild.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Among the Ramones’ blitzkrieg boppin’, the Talking Heads’ art-school New Wave and Blondie’s thrift-store garage pop at the now-legendary CBGB’s in the late ’70s, Steve Forbert stood tall as the lone troubadour. But it didn’t matter to him. “I never thought about it being strange to play there,” he recently confided from Nashville, his current home base. “I just figured they had live entertainment. I had done other auditions I didn’t get hired for, so what I did have to lose?”

Forbert left Meridian, Mississippi — down state from Elvis Presley’s Tupelo homeland — for New York City in June of 1976 to play music. “A lot was happening in New York at the time,” he recalls. “Even in Mississippi, we were able to acquire Patti Smith’s Horses and the Ramones were out — that was all very exciting.” He busked in the subway and Grand Central Station. “I was going anywhere there was a rumor of an open mic,” with Folk City’s hoot nights being the open mic crown jewel. “It was like being a kid in a candy store,” he remembers. “I made a lot of friends. I could learn a lot from people who were good, and I could learn a lot from people who were bad.”

He certainly learned how to craft a good song, as his career-launching first two albums — the aptly titled debut Alive on Arrival and its follow-up Jackrabbit Slim — well demonstrate. On March 26, Blue Corn Music is releasing those albums as a two-disc set (complete with a dozen rare bonus tracks), providing a fresh opportunity to appreciate the Southern grace and youthful energy, the honeysuckle innocence and gravel-road grit that Forbert effortlessly imbued into songs like “Goin” Down to Laurel,” “What Kinda Guy,” “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” “Complications” and his breakthrough hit “Romeo’s Tune.”

Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild, in his liner notes, figures that Forbert made “one of music’s greatest entrances ever, arriving fully formed as an extraordinary singer-songwriter — a subtle troubadour for his times, and for all time too. Now or then, you would be hard-pressed to find a debut effort that was simultaneously as fresh and accomplished as Alive on Arrival . . . it was like a great first novel by a young author who somehow managed to split the difference between Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger.”

Critics were heaping praise on an unsigned Forbert when he was playing clubs like CBGB’s and Kenny’s Castaways. In 1977, the New York Times’ John Rockwell created a buzz when he wrote, “What makes him remarkable is that he’s good already, when he’s still growing. And at his frequent best, he’s already a star.”

As many labels quickly became interested, Forbert worried about being manipulated into someone that he wasn’t — turned into to a Johnny Cougar, in his words. He wound up signing with Nemperor Records because he trusted its founder, Nat Weiss. “I just felt if Nat said something it would be true and he would let me pick my producer.” Forbert remains friends with Weiss to this day.

Forbert selected studio veteran Steve Burgh to produce after being impressed by an album Burgh handed him one night in a club. Not wanting to sound overproduced, the artist refused to have overdubs or reverb on Alive. However, after Bonnie Raitt said that she liked the album but it needed some reverb, the admittedly stubborn Forbert acquiesced. “I owe some thanks to Bonnie Raitt,” he confessed. “Bonnie set me straight on that.”

He owes Barbra Streisand a debt of thanks too. He had chosen Joe Wissert to produce his second album but Wissert got hired to work on a Streisand album just before Forbert’s Nashville sessions were to begin. Fortunately, late-minute replacement John Simon (The Band, Simon & Garfunkel) proved to be “fantastic,” according to Forbert. He credits Simon pushing for a third recording session in order to get “Romeo’s Tune” right. While the song stands as his greatest hit and best known number (Keith Urban covered it a few years back), Jackrabbit Slim offers more than just “Romeo’s Tune.” In his liner notes, Wild notes that the album, with its many memorable tunes, beat “the sophomore jinx and then some,” showing “great artistic growth” and featuring “songs that are among Forbert’s most enduring.”

Since the double-barrel blast of Alive on Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim, Forbert has continued creating more albums “full of focused, intelligent and sharp songs” (as critic Steve Pick recently wrote in Blurt), including his Grammy-nominated Jimmie Rodgers tribute Any Old Time. Last year’s Over With You accumulated more accolades, with All Music Guide’s Steve Leggett calling Forbert “a wonderful songwriter with a clear and sharply observed vision,” and American Songwriter’s Hal Horowitz describing the CD as “all lovely, melancholy, lyrically moving and beautifully performed.”

The songs on Alive on Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim, with their special blend of folk, rock and soul, form the foundation of Forbert’s music and remain a vital part of his live performances. “I do still enjoy playing these songs,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with starting out a show with “Thinkin” and nothing weird about singing ‘Everybody here seems to like to laugh’ [the opening lines of “Going Down To Laurel”].” He finds it gratifying that these songs have stood the test of time and have touched so many people. “A lot of people who discovered Alive on Arrival took it real personally and that has really been a great thing.” Among those Alive acolytes is David Wild, who states in the liner notes that “one of the many things that make this life so much more beautiful than strange is truly great music and that is assuredly what Steve Forbert has given us right from his arrival until today.”

The artist sums up his first two albums this way: “I try to make music that has lasting power all the time but those two were the right people at the right time and right place . . . Had it been two years later it might not have happened (or) two years earlier, it might have been different. Those two records — I am proud of them.”

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June 26, 2012


New studio album Over With You, due September 11, focuses on matters of the heart

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Over With You, Steve Forbert’s first studio album in three years, is a focused song cycle featuring an earnest account of the often-mixed emotions involved in personal relationships. The ten new compositions combine the plainspoken honesty and insightful contemplations into this topic that perhaps only a man from Mississippi, the home state of both Jimmie Rodgers and Tennessee Williams, could provide. And these songs make the case that Forbert should be considered in the first rank of American songwriters.

Produced by Grammy Award-winner Chris Goldsmith (who has worked with Ben Harper, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Ruthie Foster and Charlie Musselwhite), Over With You will be released Sept. 11, 2012 on Blue Corn Music.

From the first song, All I Asked of You, with its “sore-tailed cat” and its “one-armed man,” Over With You takes the lyrical brilliance of Forbert, practiced in capturing the essence of human interactions, and pairs it with a cast of accomplished young musicians who add a layer of supple, empathetic support. The result is a rich musical landscape where the emotional depth of the lyrics, and the affinity of the musicians supporting them, is palpable.

“This album is very personal,” Forbert says. “The songs are about what people feel in deep relationships — mainly love and friction.”

Forbert says he wanted the new album — recorded at the cozy Carriage House studio in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood — to be musically sparse. There is no bass on some tracks, for example, creating a haunting vibe on the songs and leaving the spotlight firmly on the lyrics.

“I’m not Lady Gaga,” he says. “I went for a much more minimal thing. It’s all about the songs.”

Nonetheless, the musicianship is superb, with Forbert working for the first time with rising star Ben Sollee on cello and bass, Jason Yates on piano and organs, Michael Jerome on drums, and Sheldon Gomberg on electric and upright bass. There is even a guest appearance by another great songwriter, Ben Harper, as a guitarist on three tracks, including a smoldering solo on the upbeat focus track That’d Be Alright.

Sollee, now a solo artist, formed the Sparrow Quartet with Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen in 2005 and has played and recorded with the likes of My Morning Jacket and Vienna Teng. Yates has played keyboards for Harper, Natalie Merchant, Macy Gray, Mazzy Star, Michael Franti and G. Love. Jerome also has his share of credits, playing and recording with Richard Thompson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. Gomberg is the engineer at the Carriage House studio and has played bass for Rickie Lee Jones, Warren Zevon, Ryan Adams and others.

While these artists all have world-class studio chops, they are primarily known for working as members of various groups or as solo artists themselves, and that background helps make Over With You sound as fresh as Forbert’s debut Alive on Arrival or his 1979 gold-certified sophomore record Jackrabbit Slim.

Forbert calls “Sugarcane Plum Fairy,” the last song on Over With You, “a return to ‘Goin’ Down to Laurel’,” one of the most beloved cuts on Alive on Arrival. He says it’s about returning to a relationship a year or so later and finding everything out of place and the magic completely gone.

As a young man from Meridian, Mississippi, Steve traveled to New York City and played guitar for spare change in Grand Central Station. He vaulted to international prominence with a folk-rock hit, “Romeo’s Tune,” during a time when rootsy rock was fading out and the Ramones, Talking Heads and other New Wave and punk acts were moving in to the public consciousness. “Those styles didn’t really synch with my musical approach,” reflects Forbert. Still, critics raved about Forbert’s poetic lyrics and engaging melodies, and the crowds at CBGB’s club in New York accepted him alongside those acts. “Ive never been interested in changing what I do to fit emerging trends,” Forbert observes. “Looking back on it, I was helping to keep a particular American songwriting tradition alive at a time when it wasn’t in the spotlight.”

After his first two records came a plethora of well-crafted, unforgettable songs on such albums as Little Stevie Orbit, Streets of This Town, The American in Me, Mission of the Crossroad Palms and Evergreen Boy. His tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, Any Old Time, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2004.

Forbert’s lengthy discography has established him as an American icon. His music was pure Americana before that genre was recognized. The road and the changing landscape are an integral part of the hard-working Forbert’s life and songwriting. He was a truck driver before releasing his first album and says there’s “romance” involved when he gets in the car after each show and drives to the next gig in another city.

Fourteen albums on, Forbert’s stamp on American music is akin to the legendary footprints of Warren Zevon, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and other top American songwriters, and he has often been compared to the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. The former group did not get their due during their lifetimes, and that shouldn’t happen to Forbert. He deserves to be among the latter group.

Now, 34 years after his first album, Steve Forbert is releasing an exciting new one, Over With You. Its ten fresh but mature songs pinpoint a wide range of emotions that color personal relationships — emotions that most listeners have undoubtedly felt and struggled to understand at some point in their lives. “This is an album that has taken a lifetime to make,” explains Forbert. “You don’t just pull these songs out of thin air — you have to live them.”

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Artist Photo