In his song called “Talking New Bob Dylan,” Loudon Wainwright III sings: “I got a deal and so did John Prine, Steve Forbert and Springsteen all in a line/They were lookin’ for you, signing up others/We were ‘new Bob Dylans’…”
I called Forbert the week before Christmas and asked what it had been like to be crowned the next “new Dylan” when his debut album, Alive on Arrival, came out in 1978.
“I didn’t like it,” he replied, “but I couldn’t say that it had no bearing in what I was doing. I had to admit I was coming out of Greenwich Village, I was playing harmonica on a rack, I was playing acoustic guitar. And writing those personal songs, it wasn’t a pop thing per se. So I didn’t take it as anything I had to fit in or live up to or anything like that. It was a label that had been used quite a few times by that point. It was kind of a cliché, but I couldn’t say, ‘there’s no reason to throw that at me.’”
In fact, it was that type of publicity that caused some record buyers to check him out in the first place.
“At that time it had some kind of value,” he admitted, “so a little of it did help. But it’s not something that you could take seriously. It’s certainly not something that you could take literally.”
Forbert, who comes to the Virginia Beach Central Library Saturday night for a Tidewater Friends of Folk Music concert, has lived in Nashville since 1985. But nine years earlier, when he was just 21, he left his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, and rode the train to New York City.
“I didn’t want to go to California,” he said. “There was a lot happening in New York. It was very exciting at that time—all the CBGB stuff was happening and the Village folk scene was still happening. And if you found out that you couldn’t get into any of those places, you could sing in the street and see how things went.
“That’s what happened to me. I had to keep trying to get into any of those clubs; it didn’t happen with just one audition. So I did end up singing in the streets. But you could do that in New York City, and that turned out to be what I needed to do.
“When it got cold I played in Grand Central Station, which was risky. You could get in trouble with the police—you weren’t supposed to be in there—so I had to do it hit-and-run.
“I wound up in the East Village pretty quickly. It was a lot of fun for me. In Meridian, you didn’t have a lot of people doing original music; it was just the typical bar scene with people playing Bad Company and Led Zeppelin. New York City was like a dream-come-true. There were kids from all over the country doing original material, listening to each other, learning what to do and what not to do, hopefully. I loved it.”
His songs caught record company ears in fairly short order.
“It took a year and a half,” he said. “Traditionally in rock-n-roll and pop music, you have your time between the ages of 20 and 25 where you get started or you don’t. There are exceptions, but that’s the general rule and it’s still true today, except it starts a little younger now.”
His second album, Jackrabbit Slim, was his best seller, produced by the legendary John Simon and featuring Forbert’s one hit single, “Romeo’s Tune.” But his next two releases failed to live up to that record’s commercial promise and he spent much of the ‘80s without a recording contract. Since the early ‘90s, however, he’s put out a series of very fine CDs, both studio productions and live in-concert affairs. One of the most interesting and surprising is Any Old Time, a tribute to country music pioneer and fellow Meridian native Jimmie Rodgers that came out five years ago.
“I read a lot about him,” Forbert explained, “and listened to all of his recordings, got into the music and tried to find the tunes that would work for us making a tribute record to him.
“Music sonically changes so much. For a lot of people to listen to Jimmie Rodgers, you’re going back a few mediums of recording and they don’t match the sound quality of today. And there’s a whole different attitude—you’re talking about the 1920s. But once you get past those surface things, you start to get into the things that haven’t changed. Jimmie Rodgers had a lot to say, so I wound up relating to him quite a bit. I got to know the stuff even better as time went on. It was trickier than I thought.
“You think, oh, well, the ‘father of country music.’ But when we got into the material, it was quite sophisticated.”
His latest CD, Strange Names and New Sensations, was issued six months ago. Where his first album was a celebration of adolescence and the possibilities of adulthood, the new one looks at life from the vantage point of a 50-year old:
“It is framed by a couple of middle-age songs that I think are upfront about what’s going through my mind at this age. Those are ‘Middle Age’ and one called ‘Thirty More Years of This’ that’s a look at some of the ironies. Then in between you have some little love songs.”
There’s also a striking new version of “Romeo’s Tune” and a blazing anti-war rocker called “The Baghdad Dream” that names names and points fingers. Nonetheless, there remains an upbeat sense of fun and good times in Steve Forbert’s music.
“That’s what I like best in Jimmie Rodgers,” he said. “It’s what I like best in Elvis and the Rolling Stones. That’s 80% of Chuck Berry, isn’t it?”
Saturday, January 12 – 7:30 pm
Virginia Beach Central Library
Tickets: $16 – 20.00
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.