Steve Wariner: Hiatus Yields Hits For Wariner

For a quarter of a century Steve Wariner has been following a dream and achieving it with a solid body of work in country music.For a quarter of a century Steve Wariner has been following a dream and achieving it with a solid body of work in country music. Before you jump to the conclusion that Wariner must be much older than he is (44), it’s only fair to point out that he set out on his chosen path while still in grade school in Indiana, playing music with his father. He was working professionally as a bass player for Dottie West when he was only 17 and still in high school.

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Since then Wariner has really become something of a country renaissance man. He’s a hit songwriter for himself and others, a virtuoso guitarist and instrumentalist and a first-rate vocalist with Grammy and CMA Awards, numerous number one and top 10 singles, a gold album and eight BMI writing awards.

After being identified with songs like “Your Memory,” “Some Fools Never Learn,” “Lynda,” “The Domino Theory,” “What I Didn’t Do,” “The Weekend,” “All Roads Lead to You” and “Midnight Fire,” the father of two reached something of a crossroads. He’d participated in the acclaimed instrumental New Nashville Cats project with stellar musicians Mark O’Conner, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs. In 1993 he released another instrumental album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, which fulfilled another desire. The project featured an outstanding and eclectic line-up of players including Gill, O’Conner, Larry Carlton, Chet Atkins, Richie Sambora, Lee Roy Parnell, Sam Bush, Leo Kotke and Bela Fleck.

After this project Wariner decided a change was in order and began concentrating on songwriting. He also appeared as a guest artist on several tribute projects to musical groundbreakers like Merle Haggard, the Beatles and Keith Whitley.

Recently Wariner has exploded back into the public eye. With fellow artist Clint Black, he co-wrote Black’s hit single “Nothin’ But The Tail Lights.” He and Bill Anderson co-wrote Bryan White’s hit “One Small Miracle.” He and writer Rick Carnes penned “Longneck Bottle” (Wariner also plays and sings on the cut) for Garth Brooks. Although he didn’t write it, his recent duet with Anita Cochran, “What If I Said” became a fourth hit. Clearly Wariner is on a new roll.

“I’ve always written for myself primarily. As an artist I’ve really just kind of laid low and been on hiatus, so to speak, from radio the last three years. It gave me an opportunity to write and pitch and really develop my stuff and get it to other artists. I had never done that in my career,” Wariner explains.

“It was by design that I ducked out for awhile. I thought it was the time in my life to step back and re-evaluate where I was, what I was doing and what I was all about. That’s the point when I really started concentrating on the writing. I’ve always published my own stuff since day one and we really started concentrating on that part of our business as well.”

Songwriting is obviously a priority in Wariner’s life, one he’s put a great deal of thought and energy into. Discussing how he’s grown in his craft, he comments that writing is a process that reflects an individual’s personal growth as well as his expertise.

“As I’ve gotten older I think there’s more depth; I look at things differently now. I think that just comes with experiencing more things in you life; you have more to draw on than when you’re younger. In my case I think that’s been an important factor. Also I think just working at it, the more you do something the better you get. I’ve been doing it a long, long time and I think I’m starting to get on to it. I’ve got a bunch of real good co-writers I get together with on a regular basis. It’s been a lesson every time I sit down with people like Bill Anderson, Mac MacAnally, Bill LaBounty, Joe Barnhill or Rick Carnes. That’s a factor, too.”

Finding willing co-writers is no problem, but as the busy artist points out, setting up the time around other activities takes some planning. He feels coming into a writing session prepared is a key element.

“I get approached (to co-write) all the time. When I get in a writing mode I start calling up people, see what their schedule is, and set up a day to see what we come up with. I keep a notebook where I jot down ideas and little bits and pieces all along of stuff I hear – phrases and lines. When I get together with someone, we throw out ideas and try to come to agreement on what we’re going to work on and take it from there.”

Wariner works at his writing constantly, but says his preference is to co-write; not only for creative input, but also the camaraderie of sharing in the process with others. “I still write occasionally alone. Over the holidays I wrote a lot by myself, but I like co-writing. I really love working with different writers, bouncing ideas off somebody else. I really enjoy it. Everybody has their own style and way of writing. I think when you get two people together that have chemistry, each person has their strengths. I think I’m probably stronger on the musical part.”

Since musicianship does play a larger role in Wariner’s career than that of many artists known mainly as vocalists, it also has a greater impact on his songwriting. He says writing an instrumental piece does involve a different process from focusing on lyric writing.

“I usually put those things on tape as I come up with melodies. I keep a file of those so I can come back to them when I’m ready. It’s sure different when you have to express emotions and feelings in an instrumental. That’s a real big challenge because there’s a lot you may want to say. You have to look at different instruments and chord structures. I really like that, but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. I’m a lyricist; I love being able to play with words. I wouldn’t want to ever get away from that.

“I think I’m inspired by most of the same things, but I think my eyes have been opened to things I might not have seen a few years ago,” he reflects when asked if what inspires new song ideas has changed from when he first began writing. “For example, recently I was writing with Jim Rushing and he was showing me an old ’48 Ford pickup his uncle had left him when he passed away. I think a few years ago I would have been in awe of the truck, but I would have just skipped right over that. The difference is that nowadays we both picked up on that moment and wrote a song about it.

“I think 10 years ago I would have said, ‘That’s a cool truck. Let’s go for a ride,’ and then gone on and maybe written a love song. We actually sat down and wrote a song called “48 Ford” that deals with his uncle and what kind of man he was and the value of their relationship. My eyes have been opened to those kinds of things more over the past six or eight years.”

Wariner considers the most important elements in successful co-writing to be trust and confidence, as long as you’re working with people you can open up to. “Not being afraid to say things and trusting your instinct, that’s the biggest thing, that and having confidence. A lot of young writers are afraid to say an idea, to sound stupid. I used to preface things with ‘Don’t laugh. This may not work.’ You’ve got to get to the place where you don’t even think that. Also, having co-writers you’re comfortable with (is important).”

As previously mentioned, Wariner has always had his own publishing company, Wariner Music, which his wife Caryn operates. While the company is set up primarily to administrate his own songs, as more of his material is cut by other artists, publishing has come to play a more prominent role in his career. Still, Wariner says there are no plans right now to turn it into a full-scale operation, preferring to keep things in the family.

“We have worked with a few (outside) things occasionally. There was a period a few years ago that we had a couple of writers, some young guys I knew from Kentucky that were just getting started. The bulk of it is me.

“Where Caryn’s great is when I play her a new song, she’ll hear somebody it sounds like and get it to them. About 90% of the time she’s dead-on with it too. She heard the Garth one and the Bryan White.”

One new development in Wariner’s life has been signing with a new label, Capitol Nashville. The first single, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” is already on the charts, with the album project scheduled for release in late April. Wariner is enthusiastic about the future of the project, his first commercial country album since 1993. He’s also acting as sole producer.

“The beautiful thing for me on this project (the tentative title is Burn the Roadhouse Down) is that lying low the last three years has given me a chance to write for this album. I’ve accumulated what I think are some really good songs, with some really great writers.

“The main thing I’m doing, honestly, is getting great songs and really good players, just turning the machines on and having fun. Some of it may work for radio and some may not. I guess the listeners will make the decision on how different it is from what I’ve done in the past. I say this with every album, so I feel like an idiot, but I really feel like it’s the best stuff I’ve ever done. I guess it’s OK to say that if you truly believe it,” he concludes with a rueful laugh.

Asked to describe what he sees down the road, Wariner explains that he doesn’t get too involved in long-term planning. He’d rather take a laid-back approach and keep his options open. “I have no idea, man. I’m not looking any farther than this project. When I was younger I was setting all these goals, but I guess as you get older and maybe achieve some of them it becomes less important.

“Other than this album I’ll probably tour more heavily in the fall. Garth (Brooks) has asked me to do a few shows with him. The main thing is to keep writing. My goal is to balance all this and still keep writing. Basically I just want to go through this journey on Earth, do what I love doing and have some fun with it.”

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