“Tomorrow is Arlington, Virginia, then Shirley, Massachusetts, Pittsfield Mass. — it just goes on and on,” Steve Forbert says during a day off on the Jersey shore. “The last month has been pretty busy. Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Lafayette, Indiana, Champaign, Illinois, Chicago, and I got out to Texas.”
There’s no tallying the miles for the 48-year-old singer-songwriter. Harder still to measure his contributions to an American musical style — call it folk-rock, as he happily does; call it post-Dylan autobiographical songwriting, which is clumsier, if more apt — which have taken him from a rare, early whirlwind of commercial success to a resolved acceptance of who he is and what his gifts might mean.
“What it is is a spin ’round an old stretch of track/In the skin that you’re in and the clothes on your back,” he sings in “What It Is Is A Dream”, the opening song of Just Like There’s Nothin’ To It. “And if you don’t mind some rain and the blood, sweat and tears/What it is is a dream for a lifetime of years.”
The album, due out May 11 on Koch Records, is his first collection of original songs since 2000′s Evergreen Boy. It takes the measure of years lived in no small part for the songs and stories found along the way, and the melancholy but also comic wisdom of realizing you can only live life forward, though you are changed by every step on your uncertain but inevitable way.
Steve Forbert was born December 13, 1954, in Meridian, Mississippi, a town of around 50,000 near the Alabama border that began as a railroad junction for the Mobile & Ohio and Alabama & Vicksburg lines. The Meridian Naval Air Station is just outside of town; the city was also the birthplace of Peavey electronics, where Forbert worked as a teenager on an amplifier assembly line.
“It is what it is,” Forbert says. “Meridian was never trying to have a more metropolitan image than it could deliver. It was very matter-of-fact. I don’t imagine it was very different from growing up in Springfield, Missouri, or Shreveport or, I don’t know, Reading, Pennsylvania.”
Meridian was different, however, if only for being the birthplace of the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, not to mention honky-tonker Moe Bandy, jazz greats Percy and Jimmy Heath, and Jimmy and David Ruffin of the Temptations. In his teens, Forbert played in bands with Rodgers’ descendants and learned guitar from one of Rodgers’ distant cousins. It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Rodgers’ fusion of pop, blues, and old-time folk music and Forbert’s own omnivorous style. But the strongest link might be simply a love and a knack for accessible, memorable songcraft.
“I just liked songs from as early as I could remember,” Forbert says. “When you’re a kid you don’t discriminate, whether it’s a nice hymn in church, or Andy Williams doing ‘Moon River’, or Bobby Vee doing ‘Go Away Little Girl’, or Peggy Lee singing ‘Fever’. I didn’t think much about it at that age. Then the Beatles came along and intensified it. The radio then was all about songs. I wouldn’t say that it’s nearly that strong today. It was all about songs and variety.”
Forbert played in standard-issue teen rock bands — frat parties and prom nights, parent-escorted gigs to Alabama and southern Mississippi — throughout his youth, but he also felt an affinity for “the folk side of things,” as he puts it. “For some reason when the Byrds came out with Mr. Tambourine Man, it just clicked with me.
“It may be the accent on the lyrics,” he says of his early and still enduring attraction to folk rock. “It may be there’s a lot of storytelling. The music is very simple, and I’m never gonna be a jazz musician. It may just be the more personal involvement in it. It’s clearly pop music. The Byrds were as pop as any band in their day, in ’65 or ’66. Nevertheless, it still has that foundation in tradition. The Byrds could record a song that was 100 years old — ‘Oh Susanna’, or ‘Pretty Polly’, or ‘Turn Turn Turn’ adapted from Ecclesiastes. Even though it was pop music, it had a tradition of tradition. Maybe that innately appealed to me, or maybe it’s all of the above.”
If it was the sound of the Byrds that turned Forbert’s head, he was also beginning to think of himself as a songwriter. “Definitely by the time I was 17,” he says, “but I was heading that way anyway; it had my full attention. There wasn’t a turning point, but by the time I was 17 I thought of myself as a songwriter and put a lot of time into it.”
As he began to mature as a songwriter, his relationship to rock ‘n’ roll was changing. In Meridian, he was driving a truck as his day job and was finding it harder and harder to take a band on the road to deliver his original material. “I’d pretty much given up on playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands,” he says. “I couldn’t keep a whole band together and get them to go somewhere. How can I write these songs and convince people to make this great leap and play my songs? I found that I had to go it alone.”
Where Forbert went, alone, was New York City. “This was 1976, and what was happening in California didn’t seem as interesting to me as Horses by Patti Smith, or the Ramones’ first record. This stuff was creative and different — some smart people making some interesting records that were going somewhere. New York still had a folk scene, and I wanted to see what was left of that scene and what was happening with this new music. They called it punk rock, but Patti Smith didn’t sound like punk rock to me. It was just creative rock ‘n’ roll.”