I can’t recall the year. Steve Forbert is playing a solo show at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, North Carolina, and in the front row sits a man and his two sons. Dad’s in a Beatles T-shirt, and the two boys are honoring Jimi Hendrix and Rage Against the Machine — kind of a 100%-cotton rock music timeline.
Forbert, always looking for an excuse to interact with the crowd, acknowledges the Rage shirt, and you can sense the wheels starting to turn. A minute or two later, Forbert stops midsong to comment “You know, I can’t help but picture some woman in curlers running in from outside and just beatin’ on the washing machine with a broom.” He resumes playing, but when the song is over, he hands the kid one of his harmonicas, the youngster’s reward for being made the center of attention for a second.
I’m thinking that story will make a great ice-breaker for my interview with the journeyman folk-rocker in Charleston, West Virginia, where Forbert has come to play the renowned “Mountain Stage” syndicated radio show in late September. It’s almost midnight when I catch up with Forbert, a couple hours after he had joined Marshall Crenshaw, the Verve Pipe and J.J. Cale for a taping of the show in front of a live audience. He’s clearly tired but quite gracious, and as we begin he shares a grin as warm as a coal stove, which instantly melts any ice that might have required breaking.
Take away the few laugh lines that have bought up a little real estate around his eyes, and Forbert’s still the spitting image of the guitar-toting Mississippian by Birth/New Yorker by the Grace of Greyhound who released the aptly titled Alive on Arrival in 1978. His music was quirky enough — or maybe just fresh enough — to earn him stage time at new wave haunts such as CBGBs, while at the same time singer-songwritery enough to draw the “New Dylan” tag. (That was him at No. 4 on Greil Marcus’ notorious “New Dylans” list, between John Lennon and Elliott Murphy.) Eight albums (including the excellent 19-cut career retrospective What Kinda Guy), a label battle or two, and many thousands of bus miles later, Forbert has released Rocking Horse Head, his best album since ’79′s horn-spiked Jackrabbit Slim.
Recorded for Paladin Records mostly in a four-day whirlwind in Forbert’s adopted home city of Nashville, the new album’s rustic songs look at lost love and its constant companions, loneliness and longing. “Real commercial themes,” he says with a laugh — but clearly not autobiographical themes for the happily married father of twin boys with the soulful names of Sam and Dave and a baby girl Catherine.
All of which makes his ability to create powerful images of loss and emptiness even more impressive. The plaintive plea “Dear Lord” depicts the search for a soulmate in simple but instantly recognizable terms (“My bed’s cold, the game’s old/I’m awfully bored and blue”). “Open House” compares the newly loveless protagonist’s “fading heart” and “dusty mind” to a house ready for abandonment, fond memories now looking like so much junk: “With silver dollars from a ragdoll’s ear/And mercury dimes for buttons, too / And flutes and whistles only kids can hear/And peacock feathers green and blue.” Another line from that same song — “Deep depression in walnut grain” — is destined to haunt me for months. And the interplay between banjo and harmonica that leads into a tasty late-song guitar solo on “Don’t Stop” is so entrancing that I haven’t even started paying attention to the words yet.
It’s fitting that this talk is taking place on the night of the century’s last total lunar eclipse, because five of the twelve songs on Rocking Horse Head have some kind of moon reference, most notably the Stonesy “Shaky Ground” and “Moon Man (I’m Waiting on You)”. (The latter song’s chorus chant of “Call, fax, e-mail soon,” by the way, represents the first reference to electronic mail that Forbert and I have heard in a song.) And following in that same night-sky vein, there’s always been a certain in-the-wee-hours quality to Forbert’s expressive vocals. When I played the new album for a Forbert rookie, she remarked, “There’s so much emotion in his voice” which says in a few words what many have tried to say in a hundred.
As if a batch of first-rate songs weren’t enough, the band supporting Forbert on Rocking Horse Head will no doubt help him gain a few new fans. Joining producer/bassist Brad Jones are three guys who Paladin A&R man Andy McLenon [ed. note: McLenon is an occasional No Depression contributor] has been urging Forbert to play with for a while and who just happened to be available for four days of recording: two members of Wilco, guitarist/organist Jay Bennett and drummer Ken Coomer, and an ex-member, anything-with-strings ace Max Johnston.
What initially seems like a slightly unusual combination makes perfect sense exactly 35 seconds into the album-opening “If I Want You Now”, when Forbert’s sandpapered pipes (the paper moving from 80 grit to 36 grit over the years) wander in over a restrained blend of mandolin, acoustic guitar and fiddle. This matchup is reminiscent of other recent pairings of cult-fave singer-songwriters with bands that are both sympathetic and solid: Vic Chesnutt getting together with Widespread Panic for last year’s Capricorn Records album under the band name of Brute, and Syd Straw enlisting bar-band extraordinaire the Skeletons for this year’s War and Peace (also on Capricorn).
Mention his new friends, and Forbert’s words all but glow. “I like every note Jay played. And I think Ken played really great, and the more I hear the record, the more sensitively he played, I realize.” And what about Max Johnston, who accompanied him on the five-song “Mountain Stage” set? “(Max’s) mandolin and fiddle are the first things you hear on the record. He’s responsible for all the colors.”
Despite Wilco’s attempts to distance themselves from the alternative-country scene, their presence on Rocking Horse Head is bound to lead to Forbert getting scooped up in the net currently trolling all fresh water for anything remotely alt-country. “It’s still folk-rock to me” is Forbert’s take on it. “If it’s got a lot of country in it, that’s fine. I mean, Gram Parsons walked that path a long time ago and did some great music. And it’s good to see that thing is still going — why not?”
Prodded for more of his feelings regarding this most recent roots-rock resurgence, he continues: “You know, it seems sometimes these days as if sincerity is a crime punishable almost by death.…And at the risk of getting in trouble here a little bit, it just seems like there’s a certain amount of sincerity in, let’s say, okay, the obvious ones, Son Volt or Wilco. And Steve Earle is often mentioned, and Lucinda [Williams] is often mentioned. There you go. Jimmie Dale Gilmore might be mentioned, right? And we can use that.”
Forbert goes on, and when he’s finished, he jokes about his rambling: “In other words, in 300 words or less, I’m all for it.” However, there’s a feeling that something has gone unresolved, a sense that Forbert hasn’t been able to quite express to his satisfaction the reason he appreciates folk-rock or roots-rock or whatever as much as he does, and why he still marvels at the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” and keeps going back to Robert Johnson and Carl Perkins.
Pushing 1:30 a.m., the phone rings in my room at the Holiday Inn. It’s Steve Forbert calling from his hotel a few blocks down the road. “Do you know the album Music From Big Pink, and the song ‘In a Station’? It’s one Richard [Manuel] wrote. There’s a line in it that’s been echoing in my mind since our conversation:
‘Isn’t everybody dreaming?
Then the voice I hear is real.
Out of all the idle scheming,
Can’t we have something to feel?’
That’s it. See you.”