This story is featured in the March 22 issue of CityBeat.
Photo: Marcus Maddox
As music origin stories go, it’s difficult to beat Steve Forbert’s: a 21-year old hillbilly cat from Meridian, Mississippi, takes an Amtrak train to New York City in 1976 to find fame and fortune with his acoustic guitar; begins busking in Grand Central Station; opens for new bands like the Talking Heads at CBGB’s; shares the same manager with the Ramones; and signs a record contract and releases his classic debut, Alive on Arrival
Some 40 years later, Forbert writes about these formative experiences in his 2018 memoir, Big City Cat
. In addition to publishing his recent book, he’s still releasing records at a prolific pace, having finished a covers project, Early Morning Rain
, in 2020, and he’s now touring in support of last year’s Moving Through America
. He plays the Southgate House Revival on March 31.
Moving Through America
underscores Forbert’s strengths as a singer/songwriter: his tender rasp of a voice, wry, charming perspective, and a penchant for melody. Thematically, it’s a travelogue of songs that charts his tours driving through the highways, byways and towns of the Midwest and other regions of America.
“I lived in Nashville for about 25 years,” Forbert tells CityBeat
from his home in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “But I didn’t do a lot of playing around there, and there are only like three places to play in Mississippi where I’m from. The majority of the work and culture, if you will, is in the Northeast, from Washington, D.C. all the way to Portland, Maine.”
“I’ve had a lead guitarist with me now for the last few years,” Forbert says. “I don’t play solo as much anymore because I did it for so long, and I found a guitarist, George Naha, who can really accompany what I’m doing very well. It gives you a whole lot more with just two people. That’s what I’m going to be doing in March, for instance, at the Southgate House.”
The title track on Moving Through America
, which Forbert recorded previously on 2018’s The Magic Tree
in more of a full band version, sets the tone for the cartographic cruising as the driver/narrator navigates between the heartland’s cities and observes the never ceasing flow of life around him in cascading imagery.
Forbert explains how traveling around America has changed: “Well, there’s a lot of traffic out there—and just more input. As I get older, it’s not as easy to take it all in. Now I see it all as more manic. But I would also say, on the other hand, a lot of people complain about gentrification and how homogenous it is, like Targets and Ruby Tuesdays everywhere. But I’ll just tell you, when we do these duo shows my percussion is stomping on a piece of plywood that I mic in the mix — so what I’m getting at here is if I need to land in Chicago and play a show or drive up to Milwaukee, I can easily find a Home Depot or Lowe’s to get the freaking piece of plyboard, which makes a difference.”
Songwriting has always propelled Forbert’s career. Nicknamed one of the “new Dylans” by critics back in the ‘70s because of his solo approach and harmonica rack, Forbert’s early songwriting prowess focused more on youthful exuberance and personal testimony. Through the years, his writing has become more observational, utilizing character-based vignettes.
“There are still songs like ‘Buffalo Nickel,’ which are very personal, and that’s me moving through America,” Forbert says. “But when you look at a song like ‘It’s Too Bad’ about a guy with a gambling problem — those are things I see around. But I’m putting my observations out there in terms of these things happening to other peo- ple. You have the last song, ‘Palo Alto,’ which is about a cement ship decaying off the coast of Cali. I just wrote about it. It’s kind of a travelogue — there’s a lot of movement on the record.”
Moving Through America
features buoyant folk-rock floods with warm melodies and textures. A few of the highlights of the album include songs like “Fried Oysters”, where a Houston man worries about the next hurricane while declaring his love for his “oyster girl”; “Living the Dream,” where an ex-con tries to deal with newfound freedom; and “Times Like These,” where a homeless person keeps moving from camp to camp with his meager possessions.
Blue Rose Records released the aptly-titled An American Troubadour: The Songs of Steve Forbert
, a tribute collection of Forbert songs covered by over 20 artists, in 2017. It’s an obvious honor and celebrates Forbert’s longevity, as well as the accumulative appeal of his songs over the decades. The roots music revival this millennium has helped Forbert stay relevant and expand his audience.
“Writing songs still means a lot to me. The ‘Americana’ label might have made things better, and made me more easily understood if you will,” says Forbert. “If it hadn’t been for that, I might have been more of an anachronism. They call it Americana now, but I’ve been doing that for a long time. Maybe it made it more palatable, I don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t become a real popular style of music. Of course, it was also real popular back in the singer-songwriter days.”
Steve Forbert plays the Southgate House Revival at 8 p.m. March 31. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Info: southgatehouse.com.
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