By Kay West
Steve Forbert Rolls With The Changes
“Romeo’s Tune” was the song that gave me a ‘career’,” says Steve Forbert of his signature song and breakthrough hit. “If you can conjure up six or seven hit records, wonderful. But you’ve got to have one. At least it gives you a ticket into the show. There’s always been a commercial element to the business.”
Even so, a 21-year-old Forbert didn’t leave his home in Meridian, Mississippi for New York driven to make hit records. He just wanted to play. “There weren’t many options in Meridian. We didn’t even have coffee houses. We had pizza joints. I was supposed to go to Millsaps College in Jackson, but I didn’t want to. Instead I went to NY. I had no real plan, I just dove in.”
Like many an aspiring singer/musician/writer/artist/actor before him, he stayed at the YMCA on 23rd Street in the then sketchy Chelsea neighborhood, and eventually made his way over to the even sketchier Bowery, where Hilly Kristal had a club with the quizzical acronym CBGB and OMFUG.
“It stood for Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers. That was the kind of music Hilly wanted to do in his bar; today it would be called Americana. It just didn’t turn out that way. Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith were so desperate for somewhere to do their thing that they wandered in there and the rest is punk rock history.”
Forbert’s poetic songs and authentic performances soon snagged music writers’ attention. In 1977, New York Times critic John Rockwell wrote, “What makes him remarkable is that he’s good already, when he’s still growing. And at his frequent best, he’s already a star.”
In 1978, he signed with Nemperor Records and released his wryly titled and critically-lauded debut, Alive on Arrival. In the liner notes for the two-disc set of his first and second albums---along with a dozen rare bonus tracks---released by Blue Corn Music in 2013, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild recalls Forbert making “…one of music’s greatest entrances ever, arriving fully formed as an extraordinary singer-songwriter.”
He made the most of the acclaim, disproving the sophomore slump theory with Jackrabbit Slim the next year. “I maybe had three songs already written that ended up on that second record, and one of them was “’Romeo.’” Unfortunately the relationship with his label ended and resulted in a five-year gap in new recorded music.
Forbert, who moved to Nashville in 1985, signed with SESAC three years ago and released Over With You, his first studio album in three years.
“The album is a lot of breakup stuff,” he says. “Most pop songs you hear are love songs, so there’s nothing remarkable about this record except it’s really true, and the title song isn’t something I would want to live again. The production is really sparse. You can put it on and it will fly by and it kind of sneaks up on you that you’ve listened to the whole thing. I think that’s good.”
Forbert remains a well-traveled troubadour, performing new songs and pulling from his extensive catalogue, solo or sometimes with a band.