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Interview: Steve Wariner - The Heart of Country (and Swing, Jazz, Folk...)

Interview: Steve Wariner - The Heart of Country (and Swing, Jazz, Folk...)

You mentioned that you are working on a new record. Can you tempt us with a preview?

Absolutely! That’s what I’ve been working on this week. I’m sort of doing it in parts. I don’t really have a title for it or anything right now, but it’s very diverse—there are a lot of styles on this. The tentative title is Guitar Laboratory, and it really is. I’m using lots of guitars. It’s a little bit of country, a little bit of jazz and swing. Recently I got out my old Bakelite Rickenbacker lap steel. I’ve had it forever, and I got it out and played two tracks on the lap steel. I even wrote a little Hawaiian piece—I just love Hawaiian music. I played upright bass, I played everything on it and just put the track together. There’s a lot of that.

Then I’ve been bringing players, I had David Hungate out here the other day, and John Jarvis, John Gardner. Ron Gannaway played drums a while back with me, too, and we’ve been cutting a lot of tracks, all kinds of real swing kind of stuff. I wrote a song that’s kind of a throwback to the old jazz and swing days called “Phyllis and Ramona.” It’s about a friend of mine, an elderly lady in Indiana who plays piano and harp, and still plays at weddings—she’s almost 90 years old. Her sister Ramona just passed away. She played trombone and was an actress and comedienne, she was this quirky little lady. I just love them both. I wrote the song about them—no lyrics, just a musical piece, it features trombone and piano and guitar, like we’re all three playing together.

So it’s really an all over the map kind of record. I played a piece on the Del Vecchio, and yesterday I wrote a classical piece that I’m going to record in the next few days—it’s kind of Jerry Reed-ish, it’s more classical that way. I just finished working today on a thing, I played my old ‘51 Nocaster on it, that’s just a to-the-wall kind of Tele song. Straight out Tele with some slap-back echo, tape echo, and I’m playin’ thru my old Deluxe. All the Tele guys will like it, sort of Albert Lee-ish. John Jarvis and I wrote a piece a couple weeks ago, more on the jazzy side, like a Steely Dan kind of thing. I’m probably 3/4 finished with this album.

So do you have a target release date for this?

I’d love to be finished by the end of September, but I don’t know if it will be.

We actually have a neat thing coming out for Christmas. I did an album a couple years ago called Guitar Christmas. There’s no accompaniment whatsoever, on each track I just played different guitars. I recorded it in 2002 or 2003. Basically, it’s like sitting in a room with someone playing Christmas songs just off the cuff. I didn’t use any clicks or tricks in the studio—finger squeaks and everything, that’s what it is! You can hear toe-tapping, sounds from the room and stuff. We never put it in stores, we just sold it online, but every year we get requests for it. I’m excited because the people that distribute our label wanted to put it out for Christmas this year.

You say you’re a Telecaster man—what drew you to that guitar?

When I was a kid we used to watch the Ozzie and Harriet Show, and I used to wait for Ricky Nelson to play at the end because James Burton was playin’ with him. I didn’t really know who James Burton was. I’d heard my dad say his name, but I was a kid. I just knew the he was playin’ a Telecaster and makin’ the strings bend, and I wanted to do what he was doin’. I think I just got hooked on it then, and then through the years here comes Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Don Rich and Merle Haggard, and that West Coast Tele stuff. I’ve always just been crazy about Teles. And then I met Albert Lee and heard him play, and those Tele guys just killed me. I went down a few years ago to James Burton’s first annual charity event that he did in Shreveport, I went down and played with him, Eric Johnson and Brad Paisley, Steve Cropper. We all played together and it was so much fun.

You started playing when you were really young—what was the catalyst for you? Obviously you grew up in a family where guitars were around.

What’s funny is my dad’s family had twelve kids—six boys and six girls—and they all played music. My dad said even his mom played. As far back as I can remember there were bands playing at my house. My dad had bands he would play with on the weekends, and a couple nights a week he’d have a bunch of guys come over and they would set up in our living room and jam and play and rehearse. When I got in grade school I thought every kid was like that. I’d go to somebody’s house and I thought it was so boring. I’d go “Where’s the guitars?” I have three brothers and a sister. My sister really doesn’t play but my brothers all do. So as I got older I played with my dad’s band. I was recording on my dad’s records when I was in sixth grade, playing drums and bass, or my oldest brother would play bass, and I’d switch and play guitar. A lot of gigs I took were bass gigs, but I was playing guitar at the same time.

I joined Dottie West’s band when I was 17 and moved here to Nashville. It was a bass job and that’s all they needed at the time. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I remember tellin’ all my friends when I was twelve that I was moving to Nashville, and they all thought I was crazy. But listening to the radio, that’s all I wanted to do, make music. I never once said I wanted to be a star, I just wanted to go play music. It cracks me up now when you ask young people and they say, “I wanna be a star, I wanna be famous,” they’re missing the whole thing. I just wanted to go play music somewhere, you know.

I also was curious about your record label, Selectone.

When I left Capitol we started this little label. I’m the only artist, and I have four albums on it. The Chet record was our fourth, and I’m working on the fifth now. When I came to Capitol, I came there with a song called “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” that was a hit, and was CMA Song of the Year, and all that, but I told my wife Karen when we came there, we’re gonna ride this thing, and when it’s time to ride off into the sunset we’re gonna start our own label and start doin’ our own thing. And that’s what we did. I did three albums at Capitol, and I came back home and knew that it was time to come off and write songs and start our own label. It was kind of a vision I had even before I went on Capitol.

It’s a way for me to make music the way I want to do it and be the captain of my own ship, so to speak. I’ll just occasionally cut another track, another track, and eventually I’ll look up and have twelve tracks of another album. I kind of stepped away from radio for a while, and I hear people all the time saying, “We want another album, where is it?” So whatever scale, however many I sell, it’s just another way for me to have more music out there. And now with the downloads, it’s really a different world, so we can do it our way, at our own pace, and not have the big record label guys looking over our shoulder.

Are you going to be working with other artists, too?

Steve with his 1958 Gretsch 6120
If I ever come up with some artists that I believe in and I’m crazy about down the road, I’d love to produce someone. If I found some artists that I felt were undeniable. But to be honest I’ve kind of had my head down working so hard on what I’m doing that I haven’t had time to look around that much. I’m just so busy on this stuff, and I love it.

I need to be doing my own stuff. It started with an album I did called No More Mister Nice Guy a few years back for Arista. I had about 22 guests on that album, and I produced it. It was the first thing I’d ever produced by myself. I’d co-produced some with Jimmy Bolin at MCA, but this was the first I’d ever totally produced, and I had to find a label to let me do it, because it was my first all-guitar, all-instrumental album. I had Larry Carlton with me and Richie Sambora, Lee Roy Parnell, Vince Gill, Leo Kottke, Bryan White, on and on, it was so much fun.

That’s a crazy assortment of guys.

And that’s just the beginning. It was crazy. I got more ink on that one album than anything I’ve ever done, and I had to fight them to let me do it. Finally I told ‘em “I’ll do it, I’ll pay for it myself, and then if you guys like it, you guys can get involved in it, and if you don’t want to then I own it and I’ll go off and do my own thing.” Well, they loved it after it was finished, because I brought in all these artists, so then it was funny how that worked out. So that was the start of it, I knew right then I needed to be doing my own thing. And then I went to Capitol and made those three albums, and I had a great run there. We had a few hits there at Capitol, but I knew all the time what I was gonna do, go back to makin’ my own records and have my own label.

That’s pretty much the way Ricky Skaggs has done things, too.

Absolutely. Charlie Daniels, too, he did the same thing. We kind of were doing it around the same time, us three guys who were doing that. At some point you just look up and go, “I need to do this.”

It’s great that it’s working, I’m very heartened by that.

We have talked about it a bunch over the years. You have to follow your heart, is what it boils down to. Follow that and stay true to it, and believe in yourself enough to know that’s the right move. I have no regrets. I’m lucky, because gosh, we’ve had success at radio, at country radio, they’ve been great with me through the years, but it’s time to shift gears and do something different. That freedom is really nice.
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