Those that have followed his career even casually over the course of nearly 45 years can recognize the fact that Steve Forbert is among America’s greatest singer/songwriters.
That stature was instantly attained soon after he arrived in New York City in the mid ‘70s from his native Mississippi and became a frequent presence in the hallowed haunts of Greenwich Village. There he achieved something of a revered reputation, one that eventually led to a recording contract with Nemporer Records and the kind of acclaim garnered by those singled out for achieving overnight success. His debut album, 1978’s Alive on Arrival, found him hailed as a singular sensation, leading the pundits to label him as a “new Dylan.” The follow-up, sophome set Jackrabbit Slim, yielded the hit single and FM favorite “Romeo’s Tune,” all but assuring him a stature that reaps him reverential praise even now.
A consistently crucial artist with over 20 albums to his credit — including a highly lauded tribute album to the legendary Jimmy Rodgers, as well as an offering that was devoted entirely to his songs by a remarkable roster of ardent admirers, Robert Earl Keen and John Oates among them — Forbert is currently taking a somewhat surprising sojourn with an album of covers of some of his favorite songs and those tracks that have influenced him throughout his entire life. Titled Early Morning Rain, it finds him covering such indelible material as the title track, penned by Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Withered and Died, “Your Song” by Elton John, the Leonard Cohen classic “Suzanne” and the song offered up as the album’s first single, Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.”
Naturally, some of the numbers are quite familiar, while others including “Supersonic Rocketship” by the Kinks might be deemed somewhat obscure. Happily then, Forbert more or less stays true to the original template — the only exception being the somewhat sprightly approach to Bob Dylan’s “Dignity.” Yet given the emotion, ache and wistful repose imbued in his distinctive vocals, each entry is effectively redefined with introspective and insightful designs. Coming on the heels of his 2018 memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock,” Early Morning Rain offers further insight into the influences that helped define his own intuitive approach to making his own music.
As a recent recipient of the 2020 Governor’s Arts Award from his home state of Mississippi, as well as a 2016 inductee into that state’s Musician’s Hall of Fame, Forbert naturally made some knowing choices when it came to tapping the material for his new album. He claims to have gleaned his choices from an initial list of 150 songs, distilling them down to the eleven tracks that were eventually chosen.
“I’ve never done a cover record, and after 40 years, that’s a lot of pent up thinking,” Forbert reflects. “The point was to be able to really make a contribution. It’s not that much different from making an album of my own material. I wanted to pick things that hopefully fit like a glove. There were other songs that didn’t quite come together enough for final consideration. I do have a style and so like I’m presenting my style instead of playing out my heart and soul with original material. I’ve always been a stylist, even when I first went to New York City, although it added an edge and toughened it up. This is a little different, but I loved making this record with Steve Greenwell, the producer, and we went about it for quite a while. It’s a pretty mixed bag. It represents my listening tastes over the years. My tastes run from Sandy Denny to Deep Purple to Lightning Hopkins.”
One would think that wide of a span of personal preferences would have made the selection of final choices all the more challenging. That said, one wonders what was his ultimate criteria.
“I wondered about that myself,” Forbert admits. “We started this record last May, so it was a matter of what was rising to the top of the list in the way I felt then. It might be a little different from where I started it this May. They were most interesting songs to me at the time.”
Naturally then, it seems a sequel might be called for. “I wouldn’t have any problem with that,” he agrees, citing songs such as “Something Stupid” by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, “Dance the Night Away” by Cream, The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better,” “Traveling Alone” as recorded by the Traveling Wilburys, R.E.M.’s “World Leader Pretend,” Dylan’s “North Country Blues” and “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door,” “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” as recorded by Elvis Presley, “Love’s Made a Fool Of You” by Buddy Holly, and “Lather” from the Jefferson Airplane as possible candidates for a volume two.
“That’s just a sampling of songs that have influenced me over the past 60 years of so,” he muses. “The hit parade has turned so strange lately. It’s no longer very personable or tangible. I’ve released a lot of records, but maybe it’s more to the point to spotlight songs like ‘Early Morning Rain’ and ‘Withered and Died’ which allow people to see the craftsmanship and detail. I’m not going to complain about the streamlined nature of modern lyrics. We all know it’s like that. It’s not that kind of personable craft anymore. They don’t really hang anybody up much anymore with tangible detail. There’s a disposable attitude that informs the songwriting.”
Forbert’s goal then is to foster new appreciation for songs that may have been lost to the current generation of listeners. “Hopefully people will notice these songs and like the way I presented them. They could use that recognition. It speaks to the high flying nature of the world right now. As a a result, a song like ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues’ seems to make sense”
Of course, Forbert should know. As a songwriter himself, he approached the material from a decidedly knowing perspective. “I’m into it up to my neck,” he says cheerfully, noting that his personal music library numbers thousands of albums. “It’s completely old school. It’s really passe.”
In a sense, Forbert feels like he’s on a mission. “I wanted to do these songs objectively,” he recalls. “They’re not my songs, so I said, ‘Okay, listen to these tunes and listen to these stories.’ This is more detail than we currently hear today.
Of course, Forbert himself has maintained a prolific prowess of his own, and while he claims that he’s always writing, he also insists that he’s not on a strict regimen. “It’s at a very easy going pace,” he explains. “I work on something for quite awhile. Not every day for three hours, but I just get something going and I work on it mentally and then keep working it by grabbing a piece of paper or working in it when I jump out of the shower and I’m all wet. It just develops, and I type it up and look at it and kind of start a second draft. That’s the way I like to do it. For me, even the simplest ideas in the world today takes more time. I don’t worry about it as long as I’m happy with it. Still, there is one important part to it. I have to finish it. To be able to say, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ As long as it’s completed to my own satisfaction, that’s fine. But I always like to have one in the works. It’s force of habit.”
Ultimately, Forbert comes across as an artist of conviction, one who takes a courageous stance which truly reflects his determination to stay true to the songs, even those that didn’t originate from his own pen. He finds it especially important to preserve the integrity of all the archival offerings
“It’s a wild time,” Forbert. concedes. “We’ll just have to see how everything touches down. It’s a question of seeing if these songs work from another time. It’s about that personable quality. We’re in a time of such strange upheaval. It would be nice if this music got out there and these songs might be heard right now.”
Still, one has to wonder if, after 40 plus years of making great music of his own, it’s not a bit frustrating that he hasn’t reached the wider audience he so decidedly deserves.
“Its not a real problem for me,” he insists. “It’s been fine for me as a songwriter to just be able to go where I want to go. I’ve seen what happens to those people who get too much too soon. I enjoy this thing of being down to earth and still having my core group of fans.”