Steve Forbert’s photographs of A&W Root Beer signs and vintage Burger King chairs are time-forgotten images of the United States only seen by someone who is constantly on the move. Forbert, who was a truck driver before he was a touring musician, is definitely no stranger to the back roads of America.
“I take all of the pictures on an outdated cellphone,” Forbert says, referring to his 2005 LG cellphone. “I’m not going for high art detail. It’s being done by tens of thousands of people as we speak. These are softer and have less definition, but they have a look about them that’s different. They’re nostalgic.”
The Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame member hasn't put down his guitar long enough to commit to one art form or the other. Instead, he has pursued both.
Forbert is due to release expanded versions of his classic albums from 1978-1982 and is recording his first new album since 2009’s “The Place and the Time.” His traveling art exhibit, “Highway of Sight,” is on display at the Meridian Museum of Art through July 27.
“I like bright colors, repetition, symmetry, a bit of obvious irony and the simply absurd,” Forbert says of his photographs. “I travel all the time, and I’m always seeing something that’s a bit different. These pictures are my own way of looking at things. It can be a gumball machine or a parking meter – doesn’t matter. I take them very quick, and don’t think about it for too long. They’re little things that end up being a lot.”
The Grammy-nominated Meridian native’s exhibit has done its fair share of traveling as well.
“It’s been shown up in Asbury Park, Nashville, Memphis and New York,” Forbert says. “This is a wonderful continuation of the saga. Kate Cherry, the woman who runs the museum, has been an absolute pleasure to work with. It’s running there for a while, and it’s neat to have it up there in my hometown for so long.”
Forbert made his recording debut in 1978 with the critically acclaimed “Alive on Arrival” and was heralded as “The new Dylan,” a title he’s long since shaken. That album along with the gold-certified “Jackrabbit Slim,” “Little Stevie Orbit” and “Steve Forbert (The Fourth Album)" are all currently available in expanded editions. “Jackrabbit Slim,” which contains Forbert’s biggest single “Romeo’s Tune,” is the last to be re-released but will be receiving the biggest treatment as a three-disc set.
“It’s a very deluxe package,” Forbert says. “The first CD is the original album. The second disc is called “Get Your Motor Running.” It’s ten songs from the concert I did on the second of September last year at the Sucarnochee Revue in Meridian. The third disc is called “Early On.” It’s the best of the early Meridian recordings I made before going to New York. I’m rather fond of it. It’s not a nostalgia thing either. The songs are just not self-conscious at all, and it’s really pretty.”
Forbert moved to New York in 1978 and was signed to Nemperor Records within months. Nemperor was distributed by CBS (now Sony Music), which was the home of Epic Records and Columbia Records among others. This was the home to his first four critically and commercially successful releases.
“Nemporor was a custom label that was distributed through CBS,” he says. “The guy that owned Nemporor is an old man now and has no use for the master recordings, so he gave me physical rights to my masters, which means I’m able to put out these deluxe versions on my own.”
It is almost unheard of for artists to own the rights to the music made during the height of their popularity. Over the years, numerous artists have waged wars against their record companies to own their own masters and lost. More than thirty years after his initial release, Forbert finds himself in a situation many artists will never experience, and he’s taking advantage of it.
Forbert, whose influences range from Gershwin to Iggy Pop and the Stooges, isn’t living in the past, however. He was recently signed to Blue Corn Music, home to Ruthie Foster, and will release his first new album in three years “Over With You” in early September.
“It’s the one of most accessible albums I’ve made in a while. The songs are primarily relationship songs. The songs are all about people, people in love, the frictions in relations. Things people can relate to. They’re all very personal songs and all of one piece.”
“Over With You” was produced by Grammy award-winning producer Chris Goldsmith, who has
worked with Ben Harper, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Ruthie Foster and Charlie Musselwhite. The release features a core group of musicians that Forbert hasn’t previously worked with, including Ben Harper who guests on three of the tracks. Even with the newer collaborators, however, it still feels like Steve Forbert.
“There are no major shifts in styles,” Forbert reassures. “It sounds like me. I’ve always been Americana-ish, I suppose. I don’t know all of the string bands of the Appalachian, but it’s simple and direct rootsy music. People who like my music will like it. The production is very sparse. Some of the songs don’t even have bass. We didn’t polish it. It was very ‘Let it go, man.’ I’ve got a very good feeling about it.”
When the record is released, Forbert's heavy touring schedule will take him from England to Los Angeles to North Carolina. His hope is that the new record deal will bring some more exposure to a career that has never really slowed down. He’s also very aware of the pitfalls and advantages of releasing an album in a digital download society.
“The Beatles’ 'Rubber Soul' made the LP an experience,” Forbert says, “It was one piece – entirely good. We’ve gone back in time in a way. Downloading singles is very similar to buying a 45. But the LP was pressed on better vinyl, and it had beautiful artwork, and it was something amazing to hold in your hands. That experience is over. Now you can just download whatever you want. But the good thing about the digital era is that it allows more people to work in niche categories and do so doggone well for themselves in a way they couldn’t have before.”
Despite living and working in a digital era, Forbert still carries on a tradition of singing and songwriting that few do today.
“Three recording artists that really take you down to the nuts-and-bolts, the raw reality of down to earth life: Waylon Jennings, Jimmie Rodgers and James Brown. Jimmie Rodgers is just probably what you might call a genius. He wrote these timeless songs and was in such possession of a classic voice. But there was something very true, and people responded to the truth in his recordings, it was something really real and universal in his personality.”
Anybody who’s listened to a Steve Forbert song might likely say the same about him.
For more information, visit www.SteveForbert.com