When Steve Forbert walked up to the mic recently in Baton Rouge, he was holding a well-worn Gibson acoustic and a harmonica attached to his jaw. It was almost like a blast from the past, when songwriters had only themselves to rely on, to add different textures to a song and create magic with basically what they had in their heads and on their backs. It was a good time then, when music was raw and virtually unblemished by sound effects, lasers and multi big screens behind them. That was the music Steve Forbert became impassioned with when he was a kid. It was the music that lured him from his home in Meridian, Mississippi to the Village sidewalks of New York City.
But as Forbert told me in an interview last week, he was not a true-blue folkie when he arrived there and that enabled him to walk onto stages like CBGBs with his acoustic guitar and just perform. He recorded albums with pop inflections spread over songs that had meanings and motives, without corrupting their integrities; because for Forbert, songs are magical and they always have been. He was in his first little band at age nine, with plastic guitars and tin can drums. He went head over heels for the Byrds. By 1976, as he writes in his new memoir, Big City Cat, “I was really getting antsy to make a more serious move.” And his radar was pointed towards the Big Apple.
Believe it or not, that was forty-three years ago, nineteen studio albums under his belt and a hit single, “Romeo’s Tune,” that he still sings to this day. His show at the Red Dragon Listening Room was like a walk through time with Forbert, his autobiography come to life, twenty-one songs that swept over you like a fond summer breeze. Honoring his hometown hero Jimmie Rodgers with two songs – “My Blue-Eyed Jane” and “My Carolina Sunshine Girl” that segued into his own “Goin’ Down To Laurel” – was indeed magical as the harmonica brought the section to a close in a wistful goodbye. He encouraged people to sing – “Where’s that one person?” he joked, looking out into the darkness for the person who had sung “That’d Be Alright” along with him – and informed the lady who had made a bathroom run during “Tonight I Feel So Far Away” that she missed him calling Donald Trump a “junebug.”
But the night definitely belonged to the songs. From 1978’s Alive On Arrival to 2018’s The Magic Tree, nothing fell flat or sounded dated, which is what every songwriter hopes their songs will not become. They were breezy and fun, serious and enchanting. At times he was so into his music that he needed no other encouragement but his own. “Go Steve!” he called out while stomping his foot in conjunction with his guitar picking, eyes closed and loving the moment.
[It should be mentioned that Christy Lee Gandy and Danis Salassi opened the show in Baton Rouge, playing some beautiful classical music, and a few other recognizable tunes, on their violins. It was most definitely music for the soul]
When I spoke with Forbert a few days prior to his concert, he made mention several times to his recent book and the stories he shared in it. The next day, I was reading those pages and having a hard time putting it down. Big Cat City is a fast-paced read, indeed filled with stories stemming all the way back to his adolescent band the Mosquitos back in Meridian, to begging older kids to play the Byrds’ “Mr Tambourine Man” on the jukebox, to NYC and into the present. He talks making records and touring the world; sneaking in to meet Howlin’ Wolf and opening for the Talking Heads. He intersperses hindsight with journal entries and lots of photographs. It is the perfect book for a music fan who wants to know what one young artist can do with their life and career. And although I still have a few pages left to read, I’d recommend it to anyone, not just Forbert or folk music fans.
“I was always a rock & roll nut and a pop music addict,” Forbert reflected in Big Cat City. “The misfit angst I had been through growing up as a skinny kid in the football-obsessed culture of a small Southern town, and the intense focus I had for what I wanted to accomplish, and the experience of having already been 100% involved in music for years all gelled into an ability to achieve anything I set out to achieve.” That is Steve Forbert in a nutshell.
So Steve, what is going on in your world?
Well, we have the book out and the new record. I’m playing a lot but I’m fixing to really hit the road and go to Scotland and then Italy and then back to England and then to Holland and then back here. We’re doing a couple of benefit shows with a New Jersey band I have when I get back from Baton Rouge and Jackson. So it’s really quite busy.
Who is going to be with you here in Baton Rouge?
I’ll be solo. That’s what I most often do. It’s fun. You get to do anything you want and nothing’s rigid, you can add a verse, repeat a verse or do a chorus twice or do a song in a different key or whatever you want to do.
Do you get a lot of people shouting out songs for you to play cause you have like nineteen albums of material?
Oh sure and that’s part of it. A lot of the time, if somebody calls out a request that I think is perfect for the moment and I think I know it, I’ll do it. It’s really fun.
Do you have room for covering any songs?
Oh yeah, I always do a couple of Jimmie Rodgers. I did a tribute to him fifteen years ago and I don’t mean to, you know, go on about it but it was nominated for a Grammy. It was called Any Old Time. So I feel an obligation to acknowledge being from his hometown. You know Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music and a really amazing artist. So I do his songs. I recently did a version of “Snowbird” by Anne Murray in Birmingham on the 28th of December and I did a version of “Mr Bojangles” recently in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. So I do cover songs.
How do you make out a setlist?
I don’t really. I do with the band cause people need to see what in the world is going to happen. But if it is just me and maybe a guitar player or sometimes an upright bass or just me solo, there is just no need for a setlist. Now, you know I’m going to play “Romeo’s Tune,” of course, but it has to come at the end. That’s just the reality of it. The rest is freeform.
The book took years. It takes a long time to write the material for a record. A record is no piece of cake but I probably won’t write another book. This was sort of my story and it covers some of the stuff that people are most interested in, which was, what was New York City like in the mid-seventies and all that kind of stuff. The book took a lot of work and was harder than I thought it was going to be.
When you were writing it, did you realize something about yourself that maybe you hadn’t before?
Honestly no, but it’s hard to write an autobiography and be honest about things because I had to own up to and face a lot of mistakes I had made and I’m sharing them with people and saying this is how it really went. I didn’t really have any revelations about myself or epiphanies about life but I did have to go over it all. You know, Keith Richards has had a very successful book and he said that it was months after going over it all that he was just kind of paralyzed from all the pain of the brutal truth in his life, how extreme it was. So I had a little bit of that. It’s just hard to look back and be honest about things when you know you’ve made a few mistakes. And those are in the book too.
When you’ve written a song, have you started off writing about someone else’s situation and then when you’ve finished it, you realized it’s more about you?
Yeah, that does happen sometimes. There are some songs that might seem like I’m talking to somebody else but you take an early song like “Thinkin’” on the first record and that probably is as much about me as anybody. I’m saying you but that you is probably me.
What can you tell us about your new record, The Magic Tree?
The new record is sort of a companion to the book. The book covers sixty years of my life and the new record covers recordings that go back all the way to 1985. So it was a good thing to release along with the book because it wasn’t just all written in the last two years and recorded in three weeks and there you go. We went back and there were some unreleased songs from those days that deserved to be heard so I took some of those recordings and augmented them up. A producer in California sort of would enhance these recordings. Some of them were just a guitar and vocal and some of them were almost complete but he might have added a nice lead guitar, whatever he thought was appropriate. And I love this record, The Magic Tree. It came out really good.
I loved the guitar on “Movin’ Through America.” Did that one start with a melody or a lyrical idea?
That song started with the phrase, “Red Oak acorns bouncing off the roof of my car.” The first line of the song is where it started and then I just saw it as kind of like almost a cartoon of me driving my car in the rain and acorns bouncing off the car. You know, I got out there in the Midwest and the wind was so bad it literally was blowing semi-trailer trucks on their side out on the interstate. So it’s really just an honest account. I hadn’t been out to the Midwest in a few years and it was all fresh and exciting to me and I just started trying to describe a week or two weeks on the go out there. It wasn’t like I’d never been there before but it had been a while and I loved it.
What guitar are you playing?
I’m almost always playing a Gibson SJ that I’ve had. You’ll see it in the book. I devoted a page to just tell about the guitar. It’s a 1949 Gibson that I bought in 1978.
What can you tell us about the track “Carolina Blue Sky Blues.”
A few years ago there was all this controversy about transgenders going into restrooms in North Carolina. I’m sure you remember it. So I looked at all that and I listened to it and I watched it all for a while and the child’s mother was on TV after everything was getting so much attention and said, “Listen, I spent years trying to make her, if you will, wear ribbons in her hair and dress in pink and do all these girly things and honestly, I’m sorry I even did it. I feel like it was just unkind.” And that’s where the whole thing kind of touched ground for me and that’s what this song kind of became, a person saying, “I can only be me. I can’t be what you want me to be.” What touched me in the end was just the human element.
Where do most of your songs come from?
Well, it’s totally up for grabs. If you look at all those eighteen/nineteen albums, I’m in so-called folk rock and I’m in so-called singer-songwriter genres and they can be anything. I’ve written songs about stolen identity. A friend of mine had his identity stolen so I wrote a song. In that case, I put it as I and pretended like it was me so I could tell the story and it was kind of a comedy song, really, in spite of the fact it was a difficult situation. You know, it’s not like Taylor Swift or most of the pop artists today. I’m still at liberty to write songs about anything from “Good Planets Are Hard To Find” to “Carolina Blue Sky Blues;” or just something like “Movin’ Through America,” a personal travelogue.
When you first started writing songs, were they more typical teenage boy stuff or were you more conscious to make them something deeper?
I was just going on pure inspiration when I first started writing songs. Those were great times. I was very prolific, I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities or concerns, but used to focus on music and listening and buying records. And pretty soon, writing my own songs. So to answer your question, it was just very free. I was writing maybe three songs a week at that time, you know, with little effort.
When you were living in Mississippi and getting into music, were there many kindred musical spirits in your neighborhood to bounce ideas off of or learn from, or did you get most of that from the records?
Really both. For quite a while I was in cahoots with a guy named Clay Barnes, who was a lead guitar player. We were kind of a team for quite a while, sort of a David Bowie/Mick Ronson sort of thing. We were in many bands together and he always played lead guitar. He’s quite good. So that was a good thing. We also had a hometown hero other than Jimmie Rodgers, who was Paul Davis. Paul had several pop hits in the early seventies and he was an inspiration to us because we had seen him play in local bands and then we were hearing him on the radio with songs like “65 Love Affair” and “Cool Night” and “I Go Crazy,” and that was on the Billboard charts for a while.
You were highly influenced by The Byrds. What in particular about their music ignited that creative spark in yourself?
I can’t even tell you that. There is something about the record Mr Tambourine Man that is just kind of encoded with a lot of data, if you will. It’s the sound, it’s the poetry; of course it’s the rock element of what you call folk rock so it was very in keeping with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Animals and all that revolution. And then there is just the fact that it is, nevertheless, part of the folk world, which is the folk part of it that is kind of mysterious to me. But it really touched a nerve and led to a life of identifying with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, or shall we say, Tom Rush or Al Stewart with “Year Of The Cat” or Woody Guthrie or even going into someone like Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It just led me down THAT trail.
Did you ever get into mandolin?
I play piano and I play guitar and harmonica but no, I don’t even try to play 12-string. I’m working to keep six strings in tune (laughs). I don’t pick up other instruments and shift to other parts of my brain. I use all that energy directed toward lyrics, really, to tell you the truth. I would find it difficult to pick up a different tuning and play mandolin or fiddle, you know what I mean. Suddenly you are in a different format. So that’s never been for me.
Do you tend to spend a lot of time molding a song or is overthinking a sin?
No, I do spend a lot of time on them. I certainly do. I just spent a month writing one but I don’t care. The days when I was carefree enough to write three and four a week are apparently gone. So I do spend a lot of time working on them but the end result is what really counts. I don’t want to spend an hour or two days writing a song that I would be ashamed to play for people. So I don’t care how long it takes.
When you moved to New York, were you a true-blue folkie?
No, and that’s why I took the initiative to go over and audition at CBGBs. I was as much into, as I mentioned, David Bowie or John Cale from the Velvet Underground who had a record called Paris 1919. I was as much into “Hey Kid, rock and roll, rock on” by David Essex as I was Dave Van Ronk. I liked so many things and my record collection is quite large. So when I went to Greenwich Village, it was a practical matter of playing solo and trying to get discovered playing original music. But no, I wasn’t strictly a folkie.
Do you remember somebody that you saw there in those early New York days that totally blew you away?
I liked it all and I have to direct you to the book cause I mention all sorts of things, everything from meeting singer-songwriter Tim Hardin and spending time with him one afternoon in the Greenwich Village, to watching Television play really early at CBGBs and feeling like, wow, this makes me miss the days when I was in a rock & roll band. There are quite a few stories in there like that.
Has blues been an influence on you at all?
What’s in there that you get from it?
Well, that’s difficult to answer. That’s kind of like what was so good about The Byrds that really got me so interested in all of this. But blues is different. For one thing, it’s a different language. The blues scale is an expressive and incredible different palette of playing music as compared to, shall we say, “Tom Dooley” or even “Get Off My Cloud” by the Rolling Stones or “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Lyrically speaking, some blues songs are, when you start to investigate it, as Brownie McGhee used to say, “Blues is truth.” I agree with that. There is just so much truth in the lyrics of the blues. Historically, it hasn’t been pop music, it hasn’t been sugarcoated, and there are blues artists that have been very dirty, you know, nasty songs and more than suggestive. There have been extremely poetic blues songs, by Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, for example. And there are these incredible songs by Charley Patton that are just about real people on the plantation that he is living on in Mississippi. So once again, I just go back to the phrase, “Blues is truth.”
Since everyone always asks about “Romeo’s Tune,” I want to ask you about a different song from that album, “The Sweet Love That You Give.”
I just sang it yesterday in Boston with just two guitars and me. If you listen to the verses, it starts off as kind of a song, believe it or not, about hitchhiking. That was the seed of the song, juxtaposing the frustration and difficulty of hitchhiking and all with a thing in your mind of a girlfriend and being in a good situation and that being inspirational as you are out there in the dark trying to get a ride somewhere, which people won’t relate to anymore. But that’s what inspired the song and it’s still pretty open. I sing it to this day and it’s a lot of fun.
When you did those first couple of records and you had the big hit, did you feel any pressure from yourself or the record company to do it all over again?
Well, I wanted to. That kind of pressure is inherent to being on a major label and I certainly wanted to have something on the radio. AM radio had taken me into touring and took me all the way to Japan. I was out with the band and having tons of fun so I wanted to keep it going. But for whatever reason, and a lot of this is covered in the book, music was changing. I caught the tail end of a thing. I caught the tail end of when Gordon Lightfoot could have a hit with “Sundown,” which was a great little record, or Al Stewart might have a lyrical song that’s a bit abstract and certainly interesting, like “Time Passages.”
America is a perfect example. They were a pop group and made some very sophisticated pop hits but they were still the kind of records you could learn on guitar and sing around the campfire or at an open mic, you know. I just caught the tail end of that so more of the folk element in my style, that’s what I’m still doing and that’s why I can still do it. So it’s a good thing. As far as hit records, I was kind of a sixties/seventies kind of record making guy. I wasn’t creating these records, building them up in the studio and doing all that wizardry. I just wanted to write good songs and get some players and get a good take of it and mix it and release it. And that kind of organic, natural way of making records, I just caught the tail end of that. Dire Straits did well but they were very sophisticated at making records and that wasn’t my real priority. I could just be myself. I wouldn’t be comfortable trying to shift a little bit. But I’m still out there playing, sometimes even solo, and for me it’s all about the songs and living the songs and writing the songs from real material. And that has also allowed me to still be at it because I don’t need a touring entourage and I don’t need a couple semis of equipment and I don’t need a light show; I don’t need all that.
Are you seeing younger people getting into that more?
I don’t know but they’re not at my shows. It’s true. My audience has been through all of this with me and we have all this in common. That’s the way it is, really, and I’m fine with that.
Portraits by Jay Blakesberg; Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough