After almost 40 years in the music business, Steve Forbert could be forgiven for taking it easy or resting on his laurels, but the singer-songwriter who comes to McGonigel's Mucky Duck Saturday night for two shows still has the fire in his belly. A brief two-stop Texas weekend tour is an interruption of what he describes as the grueling process of mixing a new record he hopes to release this fall.
"Playing the shows is where the real joy lies in all this," he explains from a studio in New Jersey. "Just take my guitar and get up there, no obsessive worrying about little things like is there enough bottom end in that. That's what gets my juices going -- the live playing is still the big fun.
"The other part of it this far along in my career is that people who come out to hear me want to be there," laughs Forbert. "So I'm playing to a pretty select group, not a bunch of people who've never heard me. They come for a specific reason, and that's great by me. Realizing that, I still find myself surprised that I'm not more relaxed than I am when I'm onstage."
Hailed as some kind of "next Bob Dylan" with the release of his 1978 debut Alive on Arrival [Nemperor/CBS], Forbert's career blasted off when he quickly followed up the next year with Jackrabbit Slim, his best-selling album whose hit song, "Romeo's Tune," charted at No. 8 and was the biggest hit of Forbert's career. He dropped Little Stevie Orbit in 1980 and Steve Forbert in 1982, but by 1983 he'd switched labels and issued Down In Flames. By then, the Dylan comparisons had ceased and much of the pressure was off as far as being a hard-touring rock star.
"It was actually great when that all went away," he says. "I don't have to have all the answers, I can just be Steve Forbert."
But regarding the brouhaha about Dylan's Grammy speech, in which he took shots at Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall, Forbert says he can understand where Dylan was coming from to a degree.
"Bob is a cosmic force, a cosmic force with some anger in him, and I think we all know that," says Forbert. "I suspect Tom might have said some stuff back in the day about not getting Bob. I think he also made a comment once about not getting James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," sort of criticizing it for being abstract like he couldn't really understand that song.
"So it's not really surprising for Bob to point to a lyric like Tom's 'I like little baby ducks' and make a point about what great songwriting is and isn't. That one's not exactly Blood on the Tracks."
Story continues on the next page.Backed by the Skeletons, Steve Forbert plays his biggest hit
For his own part, Forbert says he still goes back to three artists: Jimmie Rodgers, Waylon Jennings, and James Brown.
"Those three guys just sum up the essence of songwriting and performance for me," he explains. "They take me down to earth because there is a certain no-nonsense about their art. It's like they didn't think about what to say, they said what they thought. And you know when you hear their voices and their words that they knew a lot about life.
"Growing up in Meridian, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the few things to talk about, but I didn't really get it about Jimmie until I was asked to do a tune for a tribute," Forbert continues. "I thought it would be easy, like learning a Hank Williams song or a Chuck Berry song, but there's a level of sophistication in the majority of Jimmie's work that surprised me as I began to really dig into it. That eventually led to my own tribute album." [Any Old Time (The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers), Koch, 2002]
"It seems to me the best ideas come from people who are way out there, out there in some place that's theirs alone," Forbert says. "That's where that genius stuff like Jimmie Rodgers or James Brown comes from. That's what I have to try for when I write a song even if maybe I don't always make it."
One thing is certain: at 60, Forbert -- who released his fifteenth studio album Over With You on Houston's Blue Corn Records in 2012 -- isn't exactly settling down. In addition to his gig schedule and mixing his album, he's also pushing hard to finish a memoir. He's already got a publishing deal, so the book is a priority project. But Forbert confirms he's still very much interested in music in spite of all the changes that the business has undergone.
"I still listen to the radio in the car hoping to hear something new and inspiring, something that renews my spirit and desire to do this," says Forbert. "Hearing something for the first time that inspires me is the best surprise of all."
Steve Forbert performs 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.
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