Steve Wariner grew up with today's country music industry. He came to town as a teenager to work with Dottie West, then went on the road with Bob Luman before going on to work with and be produced by one of his heroes, Chet Atkins.
Steve watched Nashville's music industry change from the old guard to the new while he was establishing his own career as a singer, songwriter and musician. Since his 1978 debut, he has notched 14 No. 1 singles and 30 Top 10 hits. Among his best-known tunes: 'Some Fools Never Learn,' 'All Roads Lead to You' and 'Holes in the Floor of Heaven.'
As a songwriter, he's had cuts by Keith Urban ('Where the Blacktop Ends'), Garth Brooks ('Long Neck Bottle') and Clint Black ('Nothin' but the Taillights'). Earlier this month Steve released "Steve Wariner, c.p.g., My Tribute To Chet Atkins," in honor of his friend and teacher. He recently spoke to The Boot about making the album, and about his 30-plus years in music.
When you think about putting together a project like this, what is the process you go through?
My first thought after Chet passed was that I wanted to do something someday. I got to thinking about it, trying to come up with a different thing. One day I was just playing around and started messing with the song 'Blue Angel,' so I recorded it. I thought, "Man. that sounds pretty cool, it's a little different than Chet's. Maybe I can do one every now and then." So I did that. I did more research than anything, scouring thrugh books and his records and box sets and YouTube clips. I did a timeline on a dry-erase board in the studio and started laying out different eras -- Chet and Jerry Reed
, then the part of his career that represents classical, then the light jazz era. One part represents he and [wife] Leona and then his early days in Knoxville, and then I decided I was going to do a song for each of those eras. If I couldn't find a song of his that represents those eras then I would try to write one. Then the medley came about. I remembered when I played with him, we did that medley live but he never did record it. I had a live clip of him doing it on TV but I rearranged it a little bit, and added, 'When You're Hot You're Hot.'
You wrote new tunes for the album as well as recording some of Chet's songs?
Yes, I didn't just want to do Chet's songs because who can do them better than Chet? They all came about differently. I was playing guitar one night, this song just sort of came to me. I was thinking about her, this pretty melody was happening, I thought it would be pretty for this album. I thought 'I should call it 'Leona,' so I just turned the boom box on and recorded it on cassette, humming the melody, changing chords. Most of the songs just happened, great little things that fell out of nowhere. Kent Blazy and I were writing one day and I played him some of the roughs of the Chet stuff, and said, "What do you think?" He said, "It sounds great, but we ought to look at that song we started a few years ago." It was called 'Silent Strings,' so we wrote that. Kent actually emailed me some lines, and we wrote that song via email. Then 'Chet's Guitar,' I wrote that with Rick Carnes ... right after Chet died. I love playing it; every lick I stole from Chet.
Did you feel Chet's presence in the studio when you were recording?
Oh, yeah. We would do a take and we'd look up and say, "Hey Chet, what do you think? Is that the one?" I'd say ... "he'd be on me for playing that." I could just hear him saying those things. So through the whole process we laughed and joked about it. We felt his presence there. Hopefully he likes it. I've been lucky that everyone involved thinks that he would
When did you tell his family that you were doing this album?
I called Leona first and told her about it. I told her I just wanted her blessing and she said, "Honey you do what you want, it will be in good hands." Then I called Merle, Chet's daughter, and she said, "That's sweet, Daddy would be proud. I can't wait to hear it."
When did you play it for them?
I called Leona after I finished her song and told her I wanted to play something for her. Caryn [Steve's wife) and I went over and played it and she was so moved. She would look at me and smile, and there was one spot where I did an arpeggio that was very Chet and she looked at me really hard and said, "You little devil." When it finished playing she said, "I love it and Chester would love it tool" Then when we finished the project I sent copies to everyone in the family. They all got together and listened. Merle said everyone listened and was crying and laughing, and that meant the world to me.
What are some of the most important things Chet taught you about guitar and about the music business in general?
One of the earliest things he said to me was when I was real frustrated. I had three or four singles out, and things were just not happening. I didn't know it, but there was a new power structure coming into the label, but Chet never mentioned that. He told me that it doesn't happen the same for every artist. He said, "You have to be patient and just keep working hard and it will happen. There are no shortcuts to success. If you want it bad enough you will get it." I pass those same words on to young people today. That's around the time he brought me in one day and he said, "You should change producers, you're not gonna have a hit with me producing you." I didn't want to, but I switched and went with Tom Collins, and immediately had hits. I was still traveling with Chet on the road, and he was steering me through those rough waters.
I've heard stories about Chet practicing and rehearsing for a show. Did he really do that?
He would get to the venue a couple hours before the show and go to the dressing room, shut the door and play and play and play. By show time he was warmed up. I've never seen the dedication like that, that work ethic. I'd come up those back steps at the old RCA building on the way to his office and I'd hear him practicing. He always had a boom box near by and he'd record it and listen back. I'd walk in and he'd say, "I'm practicing a little bit" or he'd say, 'I just discovered this little lick," and here he is still excited about a lick he stumbled across. That's passion.
That's funny you would ask that. I was playing on the bus the other night, and someone said, 'Man, you must play every day.' I do play guitar several hours a day, but I wouldn't say I play as much as Chet did. I find myself busy doing other things. I play when I'm writing. I've got guitars stashed everywhere.
Were you like that when you were a child?
Our grade school didn't have a cafeteria so I'd go home for lunch. As soon as I got home I would get dad's guitar out and mom wold make me a sandwich to eat on the way back to school. I couldn't wait to come home from school and get that guitar out. She'd have to make me put it down to do homework and go to bed.
Did you know then that you wanted to be a singer and move to Nashville?
At first I just wanted to play and learn. My dad showed me some chords; he was patient and a good teacher. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. Around the sixth grade I started playing with my uncle's band and with dad and my brother Kenny's band. I fell in love with the Nashville around the 7th or 8th grade. I'd listen to records and I'd say, " can do that, I'm gonna move to Nashville and make records."
And then Dottie West invited you to come here. How did that come about?
I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job before I moved. Dottie hired me on the spot at a club in Indianapolis. I was just turning 18. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Her bass player was leaving and she needed someone who could also sing. My gig with Bob Luman was the same, and I played bass with Chet too. Before I could move here I had to wait two or three months for the semester break in my senior year. My grades were good, so the school let me finish up one half credit by correspondence. I did that while I was on the road with Dottie.
What are some of the major changes you have seen happen in Nashville?
I certainly saw the big metamorphosis of the industry. At the same time I was also growing in a lot of ways. When I came here it was in an era where it was rare for an artist to have a manager. It was not so much big business as it has become. A lot of New Yorkers came here, a lot of people from Los Angeles. I saw that change happening. And in a lot of cases it became harder as an artist. The expectations were bigger, the bar was raised. I'm looking at it from my perspecrtive, from just starting out with no hits to having to have a gold record to keep my label deal.
Back when I first started my competition was Merle Haggard
, Conway Twitty
, Waylon Jennings
, George Jones
, Sonny James
, the Oak Ridge Boys
, Tammy Wynette. I used to look at those charts and say 'How can I compete with these guys, how will I get up these charts?' Then it went to I was lucky to still be here, because all of a sudden I was competing with George Strait
, Reba McEntire
. I remember I went to the first thing that George Strait did here, when 'Unwound' first came out. He opened shows for us. I always loved George; he's been true to his art form. It's been good, the friends I came along with over the years, like Garth, Clint Black, Keith Urban. The ride's been great. I've seen them coming along and they've done great.
Your career progressed, as well.
I got to the point where I wanted to produce my own records like Chet did. When I went to Capitol I produced everything,and ironically sold the most of anything I did. I'll never forget playing 'Burnin' the Roadhouse Down' for Chet. That was really the first commercial album I produced head to toe. We sat at his kitchen table and he put it in his little Bose CD player and it started playing. I thought 'He'll listen to three or four songs' so I stopped it after a few songs, and he pushed play again. He said 'Don't be turning that off, I want to hear all of it.' When it was done he did that little crooked smile and said 'That's really good, I guess I did something right after all.' It knocked me out that he listened to the whole thing, that was pretty cool. He asked me questions about who was playing on it, did I mic that up. I was in heaven because Chet was asking me questions about my work.
What do you think about country music having such a broad spectrum of sound these days?
I think it broadens the appeal for sure. I think Garth coming back will be good for country music, him having a presence again. Keith is great for country. I wish there were more outlets for people to hear the traditional country music, but that's a sign of time marching on. It's big business now, and big business is not interested in traditonal country, real country. You'll hear it in little pockets, they'll let a ltitle bit through. George, Alan, a few guys. They will say that's not what consumers want, but there are a lot of people that do want it.
I love all kinds of music but I miss hearing traditional music on the radio. Chet used to say moderation in everything. So I wouldn't want a steady diet of anything. I have jazz, classical, R&B and Motown in my music library. People don't believe I listen to all that stuff, but I like it all. I was raised on James Burton,
Chet Atkins, Ray Price
, then the Beatles
. Time marches on and young people are exposed to everything now.