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Americana musician Steve Forbert: Bringing songs for the head, the heart and the Heartland

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Americana long before the term was even invented, seasoned troubadour Steve Forbert will be coming to Cambridge this weekend.

Steve Forbert. Picture: Marcus Maddox
Steve Forbert. Picture: Marcus Maddox

Years before Americana music earned its own category at the Grammy Awards, Steve, a Mississippi-born singer-songwriter, helped pioneer the genre’s mix of country, folk, roots-rock, and vivid storytelling.

He has been a torch-bearer of that sound for more than four decades in a successful career that has taken him from gold records to Grammy nominations, from New York City’s CBGB to Nashville’s Bluebird Café, from his 1978 debut album to 2022’s Moving Through America.

“Basically, the songs [on the new album and throughout his career] just come from the fabric of touring around and what goes in comes out,” explains Steve, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his New Jersey home, where he’s lived for about four years (he previously resided in Nashville, Tennessee, for more than 25 years).

It is the songs that again take centre stage on Moving Through America, which was released in May. Filled with character portraits and quirky insights, the album offers a snapshot of modern-day American life, delivered by someone who has been criss-crossing the country for nearly half a century.

The record marks a new chapter in a story that’s still unfolding. These are songs for the head, the heart, and the Heartland, from the acoustic funky-tonk of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies to the Tom Petty-esque Say Hello to Gainesville, which pays tribute to Petty himself.

Lead single, the catchy Living the Dream, is a song about a man recently released from jail. “Yep, he’s out and about feeling his oats,” says Steve, a member of the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, “and it had to be something upbeat.

“It started with the music – it’s a rock ‘n’ roll song and it’s got to be upbeat but it’s got to be a little bit edgy; it can’t be really about a tea party. So yes, that’s what the music said to me.”

And it’s fair to say that the album very much looks at modern-day America? “Well it doesn’t deal with a lot of the polarised left and right aggravation and confrontation and stress in the air,” notes Steve, a lifelong fan of British popular music.

“It’s an album of songs that hopefully you’ll want to listen to again and again that aren’t dated in a year or two. So it looks at modern America but honestly just in the sense that it’s my life, and it’s write what you know.”

Backed by the same band that appeared on his impressive collection of cover songs, Early Morning Rain, in 2020, Steve sounds as full of energy as he did in the late 1970s, when he left his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, and headed to New York in search of new horizons.

“At 17, I started writing songs consistently, frequently, and I got more and more serious about it,” recalls Steve, “and being a regional act, a cover band, was not going to take me anywhere if I was really wanting to be a singer-songwriter...

“So as you might guess, it was kind of hard to talk my bandmates into rolling the dice and moving to the feared New York City – at those times New York City had a reputation as being a very rough place – so the conclusion was that if I wanted to do it, I was just going to have to go alone.

“And I picked New York City because I had already investigated Atlanta and Memphis, the places that were closer to Mississippi, but New York City had the Greenwich Village thing and there was still some of that existing.

“So I just did what came naturally; I started taking the experience of playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands and just doing that solo. It wasn’t a calculated style of folk rock or acoustic music, it was just a continuation but by myself.”

On the whole ‘Americana’ thing that came later, Steve says: “Really it had been going since certainly Gram Parsons and you might cite The Byrds and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, country rock... you might cite a lot of people and you might cite Gordon Lightfoot albums... Americana, I just considered that I was someone who was keeping it going at a time when it wasn’t on the radio.

“You could say that I was a pioneer but it’s only in the sense that I was still doing what came natural to me and it was from a previous time. So in the absence of a lot of that, I was just a pioneer to what has become a resurgence of interest in that sort of music.”

Away from almost constant touring, Steve penned an acclaimed memoir titled Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock, which was published in 2018, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Any Old Time, his tribute album to country singer Jimmie Rodgers, in 2004.

Meanwhile, Steve’s older songs continue to resonate in today’s world, with contemporary country superstar Keith Urban recording his own version of Romeo’s Tune for his Greatest Hits: 18 Kids album. Other

artists to cover Steve’s songs over the years include Rosanne Cash and Marty Stuart.

Steve Forbert will be performing at the Junction’s J2 this Sunday (June 26). For more information, visit junction.co.uk. For more on Steve, go to steveforbert.com.

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