Playing professionally for nearly 30 years, folk-rock legend Steve Forbert says he's glad of his success, but is relieved he isn't a star.
Catching up with Forbert during a studio-recording session in his hometown of Nashville, things aren't going exactly as planned. His engineer, Tim Coates, accidentally recorded the demos they'd been working on in the wrong key.
Studio time, especially in a place like Nashville, can be expensive. But there's no label lording over Forbert to keep costs down and deliver an album by a set date. The next album, he says, will be ready when it's ready.
"One of my nightmares would be if someone said I've got to make a record and turn it in by the Fourth of July," Forbert says, laughing. "Some people can do it. That would be terrible (for me); I couldn't do it. I like to let the songs grow, one by one, finish them and then start another one. I never felt any pressure because I never sold that many albums. You've got a label like EMI completely waiting on the new record from Coldplay and the whole company is depending on it. I've never had that problem." That isn't to say Forbert hasn't run afoul of a label before.
In 1978, he released his debut album, Alive on Arrival, on Nemperor Records, a subsidiary of Columbia. Between Forbert's raspy vocals and acoustic guitar, many critics heralded him as the next Bob Dylan - talk about pressure.
But he delivered with his followup album, Jackrabbit Slim, which cracked the top 20 thanks to the hit single Romeo's Tune.
His second and third albums, however, didn't perform as well, and his fifth album was rejected by Columbia altogether. It left Forbert in limbo for the early part of the '80s.
"There were a lot of politics involved, which could have been resolved if there was a voice of reason," he recalls. "I don't think I was ever like John Mellencamp, who has a reputation as a stubborn guy. He even called himself 'Little Bastard' when he produced his own records.
"When I made mine, I wanted to do so with no over-dubs because I knew if I did that, nobody would be tampering with my recordings when I left the studio. I saw that as a safety net for not being made into something I didn't want to be."
Born in Meridian, Mississippi - the birthplace of country legend Jimmie Rodgers - Forbert's destiny might well have seen him strumming bluegrass if he hadn't set out for New York City when he was 21. When he arrived, he quickly entrenched himself in Greenwich Village's music scene, and ended up becoming a commodity because a folk-rocker channelling Gram Parsons and the Byrds was so out of place at that time.
"That's the time that I didn't have any distractions or strings in life, so that had to be the time I went to New York," he says. "And it worked out. I couldn't have said, 'You know, there's a lot of punk and new wave up there. I think I'll wait a few years before I go.' "
That fish-out-of-water mindset has persisted with Forbert trading up New York for Nashville, another city he doesn't really fit into. Existing outside of the shadow of the Grand Ole Opry is easy, he explains, when you're mostly living in Nashville because it's "geographically convenient."
"I'm mostly in Nashville just for practice with other musicians. I have to travel to play folk rock. Anybody aspiring to play country now ... it's a real set of parameters. Here, you'll find you have to try and fit in more. I would have never have bothered. I wanted to develop a following and keep doing what I did to develop that following. People coming to Nashville today ... sorry, I can't even relate to it."
Being true to one's self is something the 51-year-old Forbert's tried to instil in his three kids. He laughs, saying his 18-year-old twins' love of "metal-core" is a testament to their individuality.
And being Dylan-esque, says the laid-back Forbert, will always be second-best to just being Steve Forbert.
"I'm proud of the work I've done, but I feel like the challenge is still there to do something that really clicks and reaches a lot of people. You have to be hungry for something. But I'm not in a rush - I work on songs until I'm happy with them and I think they're the best they can be. If it takes me a few weeks to write a song, then I'm kind of resigned to that."
Advance $15 tickets for the show are available at Tix on the Square and Southside Sound. Children under 12 get in for half price at the door only.
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