Black & White: You turn 50 this year, don’t you?
Steve Forbert: Well, man, you don’t mess around [laughs]. You cut to the quick. Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. That would be December.
We’re the same age, and I was curious if you were in the same pop AM radio world I was as a kid, bubble-gum music and stuff like that?
Yeah, you know, when you’re young, you’re not very judgmental anyway. You’re pretty open. If it was Louis Armstrong, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, or the Blues Magoos, it really didn’t matter to me. You can listen to it now, and with rare exceptions, it’s pretty good stuff.
It really is good stuff. I still listen to Herman’s Hermits.
Herman’s Hermits was an excellent band. When I met Garry Tallent [bass player in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band who produced several of Forbert's records], and we started working together, that’s one thing we had in common. I said, “I don’t care what anybody says, Herman’s Hermits was a good band.” And he said, “I saw them at the Convention Center in Asbury Park in ’66, they were great!” So from there on out, we had a good time.
There’s been a surge in the number of singer/songwriters in the past decade that tend to sound the same. Do you agree?
Well, I do. Lucinda Williams was certainly a blast. She was unique. But Lucinda is my age. There are a lot of factors to that. I could go on all afternoon about it. You know, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is what people hear on the radio encouraging them to make more music like what they hear on the radio? Or is it just that their roots don’t go back any further than Nirvana or Shawn Mullins? But you know music is gonna change. You can’t expect it to stay the same; it changed every decade in the 20th century. You had your big band era, and then rock ‘n’ roll blew that off the blackboard. Rock ‘n’ roll turned into rock . . . I try to work really hard to craft my songs. I think if you listen to a lot of music, you kinda have a better chance of doing something original because you hit something and you go, “Oh well, that’s been done,” or “No, America did that or Grand Funk Railroad did that.” You search hard to find something that will stand up against all the stuff you’ve heard.
There’s a lot more do-it-yourself home recording these days.
Yeah, but that might be some of the reason you hear a lot of the stuff that’s same-y . . . If somebody wants to make a record, that’s fine. And those people can press you up some CDs; you can get 500 or you can get a thousand . . . so if that floats your boat. You know, everybody has a right to pick up a canvas and paint a picture. And it’s a good thing that everybody has the ability to make themselves a CD and put it in the car and listen to it and see what they think. And that’s fine. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that . . . but when I came up [laughs], there were probably two recording studios in Mississippi, and we’d heard of one in Dothan, Alabama, so we drove over there to see if we could get started there. Before you could even see the inside of a recording studio, you had to be way down the road. You had to have a local following, you had to at least know somebody. And that kind of weeded it out, really. Any of the major record companies, you had to get past an A&R guy that could probably arrange a horn section and produce a record. So there’s another factor.
Has songwriting gotten any easier for you since you’ve been doing it for 25 years?
No, nothing’s gotten easier. It’s harder, the songs take longer, you’ve got more distractions.
Have you got another 25 years in you?
I might, but I wouldn’t go past that. You’ve got some people that are still doing it. Merle Haggard . . . I’ve got a friend that saw him recently and said that he was in complete control and had a lot of spontaneity, and that’s encouraging.
When you recorded “Romeo’s Tune,” did you feel yourself trying to write a hit for a certain market?
I wrote it about a girl in Meridian, but I didn’t want to put it on Alive on Arrival [it ended up on his second record, 1979′s Jackrabbit Slim] because that record was obviously taking shape as the story of coming to the city and trying to adjust and leaving the South. So I wanted to wait. When we recorded “Romeo’s Tune,” a number of people had heard me play it and said, “Yeah, that’s gonna work for you.” So we recorded it three times until we got it to where we thought, “Yeah, okay, that sounds like a hit record.” So I was definitely trying and aware of it, but I didn’t write the song in that regard. I just wrote this song about this girl I had fallen for in Meridian [laughs]. We did work on it to make sure we got a happening version.
You’ve got a song about Rick Danko on your new CD. Were y’all pals?
Yeah, now I don’t want to exaggerate that. We did shows together, and I hung out with him sometimes when I would visit Woodstock for the weekend, just for fun. Woodstock is not much bigger than Butler, Alabama. So you’re gonna run into Rick ’cause he was a party animal. He was just a wonderful guy. It’d make you feel really great to meet Rick Danko, and then the next time you’d see him he’d be the same friendly guy. And I’ve met a lot of people who had the same story to tell. People loved him. And I wrote the song pretty much right after he died.
Tell me why you’re drawn to The Band.
Well, I feel like you’re asking me that question for your paper and not yourself . . . ‘Cause you know, it’s a curious hybrid of a lot of things. It’s obviously rock ‘n’ roll. They have paid so many dues; they have so much knowledge. You know, Levon Helms thinks Garth Hudson is a musical genius. Dylan said that Robbie Robertson was the only guitar player who didn’t affect his digestive system or something. You might remember that weird quote. They had so much talent. I could go on for an hour. It was a time when yet another group of people kind of took all the ingredients out there in American music and made something new out of it, just like Elvis had done and Jimmie Rodgers had done.
O.K., here’s one for me. I’m going to see Del McCoury tomorrow night and was curious to know what you thought about the problems McCoury had with Steve Earle’s cursing on stage, which reportedly ended a European tour the two were doing together.
I side with Del. There may be a place for that, but it’s not in what they’re trying to do. And then Steve just doggedly kept it up even after it had became an issue. It’s just not necessary . . . Tell Del I said hi [laughs].
Did you fit in with the punks and new wave crowd when you first moved to New York?
Yeah, I had a ball. It was good. I got to do a lot of watching. They’d put me on for 30 or 40 minutes, and it didn’t disturb anybody’s equipment. I was playing solo, and then I could sit back and watch The Talking Heads as a trio. It was interesting. It was exciting, but we didn’t know it would be, like, legendary. It was only in the last couple of years that it became history, you know? People ask me, “Why did you play that music in New York in the ’80s?” That’s what I wanted to do, that’s where I was coming from. I’d heard Patti Smith, I’d heard The Ramones when I went up there, but it didn’t make me think I should get a weird haircut or spit on the audience and expect them to spit on me. I always liked that folk rock thing, and then when Gram Parsons came along, he just reinforced it and threw in the country thing . . . The Ramones and I had the same manager. I always seemed to encounter them when they were all four together [laughs]. It was kinda like walking into a cartoon strip. And they were very honest, very frank people. They didn’t mess around. &
Steve Forbert performs at the Blockbuster stage on Saturday, June 19, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.