Interview With Steve Forbert

Sep 13, 2022

OTHER STRANGERS… Interview with Steve Forbert by Bill Elliott

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1955, Steve Forbert grew up in the same town as Jimmie Rodgers, a fact acknowledged on his latest album, Any Old Time, a musical homage to the founding father of country music. But it was the classic retro folkie image of Forbert with acoustic guitar and Dylanesque harmonica rack on the cover of his debut album, Alive On Arrival (1978), which first grabbed the public imagination. The following year’s Jackrabbit Slim album proved a commercial breakthrough, its tuneful single, Romeo’s Tune, charting on both sides of the Atlantic. A heavy touring schedule followed, including appearances in the UK, but subsequent albums failed to replicate his early chart success. Instead, Forbert carved out a career as one of the most respected American singer-songwriters of the last quarter-century, teaming up with the E Street Band’s Gary Tallent and others for a series of richly detailed and lyrically complex albums charting the intricacies of the American psyche.

Steve, early images can be both a help and a hindrance to an artist. To dispense with the most cliched and possibly most annoying journalistic question first, how soon did you become tired of the “new Dylan” tag? And was it any consolation that John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and even Steve Goodman shouldered the same burden?

John Prine, Loudon Wainwright, Steve Goodman, BRUCE Springsteen, myself, a guy named Sammy Walker, Andy White in the UK; the list went on and on. By the time I was tagged with it, the term had become clearly a press cliché. It was, nevertheless, a nuisance, and, yes, I guess there was some consolation in the fact that I was in good company. Was Elliot Murphy also on the list?

What was your first experience of Dylan’s music, in terms of a particular song or album? Were his albums easily available in Meridian, Mississippi?

I heard the smash hit Like A Rolling Stone on the radio and bought it along with lots of other hit 45s of the mid ’60s. A few years later, becoming an avid reader of the rock press, I saw that I needed to find out what all this Bob Dylan ‘voice of a generation’ business was about. I started with THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’. It’s still a special LP to me. With God On Our Side was a revelation. Hattie Carroll said a helluvah lot. Hollis Brown was ‘a picture from life’s other side’. And I remain extremely impressed by North Country Blues. (Imagine sitting in Mississippi listening to Only A Pawn In Their Game.). I guess this would’ve been 1970 because NEW MORNING was the first Dylan album I bought upon its initial release. (I’m pretty partial to it, too.)

Have you ever met Dylan? If so, what were the circumstances and your impressions of the man?

I met Mr Bob Dylan at the Lone Star Café in NYC that night he sang Blues Stay Away From Me with Rick and Levon. I’d sent him a copy of the Jimmie Rodgers biography and asked him if he’d received it. Later, in 1988, I opened four of the initial Never-Ending-Tour shows. I spoke with him then, but we were interrupted by a person working with me at the time. Mr Dylan seemed very nice.

In terms of the development of your songwriting style, how has Dylan’s work shaped, influenced or fed into your own songs – for good or ill?

I think in whatever way his style influenced me, it was for the good. He continues to influence anybody paying close attention in our culture and no doubt anyone with an interest in seriously writing song lyrics. Look, he’s the best and being influenced by him means gaining an increased awareness of the many possibilities.

Dylan has often appeared to be chameleon-like in the course of his long career, shedding the early Woody Guthrie jukebox folkie image for hipster rock ‘n’ roll poet and acid seer, before his post-accident transformation into a country gentleman, not to mention his late 70s Born Again phase? Are you drawn to any particular Dylan incarnation, or do you simply accept the man in his variousness?

The chameleon thing, as long as it intensely lasted, was and is intriguing. It’s added a lot to Robert Zimmerman’s charismatic ‘Bob Dylan’ creation. But for me the key issue is the material, so I just have particularly favorite songs throughout the decades, not a favorite Dylan incarnation. By the way, in the chameleon sense, David Bowie was the real ‘New Bob Dylan’.

What is your opinion of the later Dylan, particularly Time Out Of Mind and “Love And Theft”? Do you value the so-called Never Ending Tour?

I’ll try to be brief . . . It seems to me that Bob Dylan forced himself to ‘wear a hair shirt’, if you will, after his disappointing/confusing output of the ’80s. If it meant releasing no new original material, or reinterpreting traditional folk songs, or touring incessantly, or God knows what else privately, then that’s the discipline he set for himself. He managed to make his way through this regimen and got to wherever it was psychically/emotionally/spiritually that he needed to get to in order to produce the first-rate material on these two CDs. None of his ‘peers’ could do it. Several of them may be excellent (and more consistently satisfying) live performers, but they can’t seem to write any songs that still cut to the bone and allow us a 3D sense of some of their real inner struggle at this (their later-middle-aged) stage of life. All things considered, TIME OUT OF MIND and “Love And Theft” are awesome.

To be honest, TIME OUT OF MIND struck me at first as being too unduly bleak. (“I thought some of ’em were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’em all.” “My eyes feel like they’re fallin’ off my face.” “nothin’ but clouds of blood.” “And even if the flesh falls off my face.”) It seemed like the world-weariness of, say, an eighty-year-old artist instead of a sixty. After more listening, though, I accepted the emotional state and changed my mind. As far as the shows go, I mainly say, ‘whatever.’ I saw an excellent one here in Nashville a few years ago (Bob and band were joined by Marty Stuart for the entire show) and I’ve also seen some disappointing ones. Maybe you’d think most of the shows this month are awful or maybe you’d think several of them are great. Enjoying the show is, of course, a subjective/relative thing.. As we all know, the shows are usually sold out. People who don’t know any better think they’ve seen a wonderful show or are just happy to be able to say they saw the legend in person and people who do know any better don’t have to keep coming back.

I say what difference does ultra-informed, critical opinion of the shows really make if he manages, through this personal modus operandi, to create CDs that are the quality of TIME OUT OF MIND and “Love And Theft”? Down through whatever ages the world has left, it’s the albums (especially the best ones) that will matter most regarding the artist known as Bob Dylan.