Interview: Steve Wariner - The Heart of Country (and Swing, Jazz, Folk...)
August 5, 2010
Steve Wariner on putting together the tribute, the era-appropriate instruments he used, why he loves the Tele, and the benefits of recording under his own label.
Steve, holding the Del Vecchio resonator used on his latest album, My Tribute to Chet Atkins
We caught up with Wariner in his studio after a week of working on a new project, tentatively titled Guitar Laboratory, to talk Chet, vintage guitars, why Telecasters rule, and taking his music into his own hands.
There’s a line in your song “Chet’s Guitar” on the Tribute CD about the heart and the soul and the tone and the touch of Chet’s guitar, yet like you say in your liner notes, nobody can “out-chet Chet.” How did you walk the fine line between honoring Chet’s playing and letting you be you at the same time?
It wasn’t hard for me as long as I kept the focus that I wasn’t trying to be Chet. I wanted to keep the right spirit. There‘s only one Chet. I’ve always been a Tele player, that’s how I was always known, for playing a B-bender and being a Tele guy all through the years, but at the same time I always loved that fingerstyle/thumbstyle playin’ like Chet. It comes from my father I think. He loved Merle Travis and Chet—he had all of Chet’s albums—and was really a good player, too. I was soaking it up as much as I could being around Paul Yandell and a lot of the guys I was hanging out with earlier, Jerry Reed and Chip Young and a lot of studio guys that played that way. Later I was working for Chet and around him. We were real close since we first met and he produced my records. All through the years up to his death we were good friends. I was just around it a lot, and believe me I tried to steal everything I could!
And that’s not a bad thing at all. Not a bad guy to steal licks from.
One of the things about Chet that I always loved, and it’s a great lesson for me, one of many lessons, was how enthusiastic [he was]. He never got away from that, even in his very elderly days, even when he got sick. He had that guitar in his hand, he was working on a lick, he was working on music, learning. “Here’s a new thing I just learned!” and I’m thinking, gosh, you’re 70 years old and you’re excited about learning a lick! That’s awesome. I’m hoping that I’ll be that way.
Steve and Chet
So he practiced every day.
Yeah, he always had a guitar in his lap or beside him, but in his hands most of the time. Any given time I could swing by his office and he’d be in there playing, every day. I’d come in and he’d say, “Hey, let me show you this thing I just learned!” Incredible.
How long were you specifically working on the tribute CD?
So I recorded a version of that on my own, and then my engineer, Randy [Gardner], came in one day and I played it for him and he flipped over it. I thought I’ll do another, then another, and I just kept adding on, between my touring and writing “regular” songs. I started just occasionally recording another Chet song and putting them together.
I came up with a soft timeline, starting in the early Appalachian days when he was a young teenager and started filling in the blanks. I thought I’d play the songs in each style of each era, because Chet’s style changed a lot. He always played the same, but his early days are different—it’s more hard-driving and more Merle Travis-y in the early days.
Then I stated writing a few songs. I studied records from each era so I would make sure that I could try to get the guitar sound and the style that he played. Randy Gardner got it from head to toe. He knew Chet real well and had worked with Chet a bunch over the years. I tried to capture his style for each era, and I had the luxury of using some guitars that he’d given me through the years.
What guitars did you use on the album?
I really didn’t have a guitar for the first two songs [“Leavin’ Luttrell” and “John Henry”] that would be representing early early days. I have a couple, but I didn’t have one that really would represent Chet’s early days when he was playing a D’Angelico that Mr. D’Angelico made for him. I was talking to Paul Yandell who worked with Chet for 30 years, and he had an archtop Epiphone, probably from the ‘50s, and one of the pickups in it was Chet’s pickup. It was a beautiful guitar. I played the first two tracks on that and gave it back to him.
When Chet left Gretsch and went with Gibson, they made him a Gibson Country Gentleman. Chet gave it to me, and that’s what I played on “Back Home Again (in Indiana)” and “Leona.” Basically, it’s a Gretsch-orange Gibson. It’s really a beautiful guitar and I’ve left it exactly like he had it, all I’ve done is changed strings. He had a piece of Velcro on the front pickup where his thumbpick would make some noise, and I haven’t changed any of that. The fiddle player on “Back Home Again (in Indiana)” was Jeff Guernsey. I wanted it to be real swing-like. At that time, Chet went to Chicago and recorded a bunch of jazzy swing stuff, so that song represented that. The piano was Tony Migliore, who played piano when I toured with Chet. He conducted the orchestras and arranged the strings and so forth for Chet, so I though it’d be fun to bring Tony in for that.
“Blue Angel” was the first song I did out of the chute, not even knowing I was doing this album yet. I originally used a handmade classical guitar made by Haskell Haile. He made beautiful furniture and later in his life he started making guitars. I saw Chet’s guitar once and I just flipped over it and Chet introduced me to him. I got to listening, and it really wasn’t the right tone. It didn’t fit that sound that I wanted for that particular era—it was too bright. The next day I came back with a Takamine classical guitar that I’ve had probably 15 years or more, it’s kind of my go-to classical. I recorded it with compression on it and it was way too squeaky and didn’t sound right, so I went back the next day with the Takamine and recorded it straight. Used a U67 mic dropped down on the hole, close mic’d it and just recorded it with no compression, no anything, just raw.
“Reeding Out Loud” represents Chet and Jerry Reed of course, and Paul Yandell played the electric part. I once had an old Baldwin Classic electric, like Jerry used to play, but over the years I think it got stolen or something. That’s the only guitar in my whole life that I just don’t know what happened to it, and it just kills me. But I have a beautiful Kirk Sand guitar that Kirk made for me several years ago, a nylon string classic electric, that I used on the track. I believe Paul played the Epiphone that I used on those earlier tracks. He played the Jerry part and I played the Chet part, and it was our tip-of-the-hat to those great Chet and Jerry records.
Steve (right) plays his Kirk Sand guitar onstage with Chet.
I played Chet’s guitar—the Gretsch-orange Gibson—again on the “Producers Medley.” On “Tuned In” I played the Gibson and the Takamine classical. On “6120," of course, I played my 1958 Gretsch 6120. It’s really a sweet guitar—it plays great. My friend Jimmy Mattingly played just beautiful fiddle on that. Of course, on “Chet’s Guitar” you gotta play Chet’s guitar, so I played the Gibson Country Gentleman.
For “Silent String” I just mic’d a Del Vecchio resonator acoustic. Chet always put a Neumann U67 real close on the resonator, and I thought, That’s what I’m doin’. It has a really unique tone. I thought it was appropriate to play it on the last song. It’s a real mournful guitar, like his guitar probably was missing Chet, mourning for him, that’s kind of the way I looked at that song.
What amp were you using?
I used a ‘65 Fender Princeton. Todd Sharpe, a brilliant amp guy here in Nashville, kinda modded it a little bit. It was either that or a blackface Fender Deluxe, those are my two amps that I use most of the time. Sometimes we double mic’d back and front. I have a vintage RCA 77 ribbon mic—they call it the Tylenol pill mic—that I used on it, and I think we used either a Royer ribbon or an SM57 behind it. Chet used those RCA ribbon mics a ton, 44s and 77s, so I used the 77 mostly.
So, no other outboard effects on it at all?
For “Silent Strings,” I played the Del Vecchio with a Fulltone Tape Echo. I think on “Back Home Again (In Indiana)” I used an MXR Carbon Copy, but on all the others I used the real analog tape delay.
I could tell that you went through the eras and listened and figured out what he was playing and how he was recording it—you really nailed it.
The greatest complement for me was from Chet’s daughter, Merle. She called me after she heard the album, just in tears, and she said, “I think you captured Daddy. Oh my god, every little thing, every little touch, you really captured Daddy better than anybody ever has.” And that made me feel great, you know.
But this certainly is the most care and love and time that I’ve ever put into a record. I’ve made 20-something albums in my career, but I’ve never worked on an album that long or put that much care into one. I told Randy from the start, it has to be as seamless as possible, because if I am gonna do this album to honor Chet, it’s gotta go the full distance. I really wanted to capture the different styles.
What do you remember about Chet’s rig?
I know later when I was working with him he was using a Lexicon–he’d travel with it too, he had a little rack there that he’d carry. He had it set for a couple delays that he’d use, either a slap-back or a long delay. On a couple songs like “Snowbird,” he utilized his delays in making extra notes. But I know in his early days he was using tape delay, real analog tape, like I was emulating. He was using analog tape way back in the ‘50s—him and Les Paul, they were doing it a long time ago!
It’s funny with Chet, he had a little RCA Studio B in his house in the ‘50s. Everybody and their brother has a recording studio at their house now, but it really boggles my mind, because I see pictures, and his studio never changed. I recorded a lot at his studio in the early days when he first signed me to RCA. I would go over to his house and record vocals, but it always just blew me away that he’d have all these old ribbon mics, LA2As [Universal Audio Compressor] and 1176s [UREI 1176 Fet Compressor] laying around, you know. Beautiful, just like a mini Studio B, and he was doing that many years before it became vogue to have a studio at your house. It was really something else when you think about his career and what he did and achieved.
You mentioned that you are working on a new record. Can you tempt us with a preview?
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?
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.