Gary James' Interview With
Steve Wariner

At 17, he was playing bass in Dottie West's band. He then went on to work with Glen Campbell and Grand Ole Opry star Bob Luman. Chet Atkins signed him to RCA records in 1976. Since then, he has released 18 albums, charted more than 50 singles on the Billboard Country singles chart and enjoyed 10 Number One hits. He's won 4 Grammy Awards, one for Best Country Vocal Collaboration, and 3 for Best Country Instrumental Performance. He's won 4 CMA (Country Music Association) awards; an ACM (Academy Of Country Music) award; 16 BMI Country Awards and 15 BMI Million Air awards. In 1996, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In 2008, he was inducted into the Music City Walk Of Fame in Nashville and in 2011, he was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall Of Fame. In 2013, he released his first non-instrumental album in eight years, called "It Ain't All Bad". We are talking about the one, the only, Steve Wariner.

Q - Steve I've only waited 35 years to speak with you! I first heard about you on August 30, 1978 when I was backstage at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, New York interviewing Dottie West. She mentioned your name in that interview.

A - Oh, man. That's so nice. She was something else. There's a book out about her life now and I'm reading it. It's really interesting. I know a ton about that story already, but what an incredible story. I know the stuff from when I was with her on. It's her earlier life I'm really interested in, learning some things I didn't know.

Q - They made a TV movie about her life. You must have seen that.

A - I didn't see that. It was too fresh for me with the tragedy (Dottie West's death in an auto accident). I couldn't bring myself to watch it. I probably would watch it now.

Q - You played at the New York State Fair a couple of years ago, didn't you?

A - Yeah. I remember we played the State Fair one year and it rained on us. We just kept playing through the rain. No lightning, so I'll play through the rain. I don't mind, but when it's lightning, I'm out of there. I remember we played, I got wet, it was great. It was a great time at the Fair.

Q - How was it you joined Dottie West's band when you were 17? Had you already graduated high school? Did you quit? How did you go on the road at 17?

A - Well, it's an interesting question. For young people whenever I speak of this, I always emphasize that I did finish school and got my diploma. I was lucky that my grades were pretty fair. When I met her I was coming up on my semester break of my Senior year of high school. I talked to my guidance counselor at school. They knew that I played music and that it was an opportunity for me and I really wanted to do it. The guidance counselor had me talk to all of my teachers and said if they are all willing to let you take your tests early and you do well on your tests, you can leave on your semester break. All I needed for the second semester was a half a credit of government and I took that. I took a little correspondence course and they let me do it out on the road and I got that half a credit and graduated out on the road. Luckily my grades were okay, so I was ahead of the curve a little bit. I graduated. I didn't go to my graduation, but I did get my diploma out on the road.

Q - That was quite a big jump for you, wasn't it? One minute you are putting your books in a locker and the next minute you are on stage here, there and everywhere.

A - It really was incredible. My parents were both from Kentucky and moved to Indiana right before I was born. I had never been out of Kentucky and Indiana really. I found myself in Nashville. My very first bus trip was to Reno, Nevada. Most young musician's first trip will be maybe Arkansas. My first trip was Reno, Nevada. That's a heck of a bus ride! We stopped in Amarillo, Texas and picked up a group of folks that were going to open up the show. We were at a hotel for two weeks. And it turned out the group we were picking up to open the show for Dottie was The Gatlin Brothers. It was a family. Their sister was with them too. Larry and the Gatlins weren't in Nashville yet. They were still in Texas. But I met all the Gatlins. I've been friends ever since. Those were great times. I found myself a few months later on my first plane ride going to New York and then to London, to the Wembley Festival. Just incredible experiences right out of the chute. I wouldn't trade anything for it.

Q - One thing I didn't know about Dottie West when I spoke with her is that she met Elvis.

A - Yeah. Elvis played in 1973 in Nashville at the Municipal Auditorium. I went with Dottie to see Elvis and of course she had great box seats being on RCA. That was really something.

Q - Did you meet Elvis?

A - I did not. I think she did that night. I didn't get to go backstage, but I was thrilled to see the show.

Q - You probably would've liked to have met him, wouldn't you?

A - Oh, I would've loved to. And James Burton as well. Of course James and I became great friends not long after that. He is still one of my favorite people in the world. We performed with him. We are like great friends right now. I would have loved to have gone backstage and hung around. I was just Dottie West's lowly little bass player back then. It was fun. Dottie was always very nice to me. She included me in a lot of things and afforded me the chance to do a lot of cool things that I wouldn't have had the chance to do otherwise.

Q - That was playing bass on Dottie's "I Was Raised On Country Sunshine", wasn't it?

A - You know, I played on a version of that. Tom Roland, the writer of that and I had a discussion about that. He says that I'm credited for playing on the record. I think truly what I played on was she did another version of that as a jingle and I played on that. He thinks I'm kind of wrong about that, but I don't recall playing bass on that record, but I know I'm listed as that. I did play on a lot of her stuff. We actually have a duet together that was never released. I was 18 years old. I cut a song that Red Lane wrote. I think Red and Dottie wrote the song "You're Too Much For My Two Arms". It was never released on RCA. Still tucked away somewhere over there in the vaults.

Q - Maybe someday.

A - I'd love to have a copy of that. I'd love to finish it and mix it and put it out, or hear it anyway. But it will never see the light of day now I'm sure. Then I sang on some other songs of hers. I sing on a Larry Gatlin song she did called "Help Me". She let me come in the studio. That's really my introduction to RCA through her. She was very helpful in that way.

Q - I noticed on your new CD, "It Ain't All Bad", that every song tells a story. There's a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course, most Country songs are like that. That is the difference between Country music and what passes for Rock music today, isn't it?

A - (Laughs). I love it when a song has a story. I'm with you on that. There's not many forms of music left that do that. I think Country is it. That's why I love old songs, especially the older Country songs. They are really the story songs. They really strike a chord. I love those great classic Country songs. That's what I try to do. I think I'm lucky on this album that I had a chance to write and work with some really good co-writers. I wrote some by myself as you noticed. I wrote with great writers like Bill Anderson. Kent Blazy, Allen Shamblin, Jim Rushing. We wrote that song "'48 Ford", which is really a true story song. It tells a nice story I think. I'd say almost all of these songs are actually from real live true places. They come from real experiences or something that really happened. That's what I say about this album, these songs are, all 12, are little snippets, little time capsules of things that were going on in my life during that eight year period that I kind of ducked away. I was doing my self-indulgent guitar project. These are songs that I was collecting through those eight years or so. I'm really proud of the writing on this record.

Q - You spent what, eight months in the studio recording this CD?

A - Yeah, that's about right. Working on this project from head to toe. About eight years writing it. I had about 50 songs for this project and I kind of narrowed it down. We actually cut 15 and then I took 12.

Q - 50 songs?! That's like Springsteen. He went into the studio with 60 songs for his first album!

A - (Laughs). Whether I'm recording an album or not, I'm writing all the time. I'm writing today. I got a friend coming over and we've got a new song we just started. It's awesome. I can't wait to get back to it today. But I'm writing all the time and then when I looked around and realized I haven't recorded in eight years, I started looking through my songs. I knew in my mind I had a bunch of songs that just haunted me and wouldn't leave me alone, my favorite favorites. Those were the ones I took into the studio. I joke and say those songs wouldn't leave me alone right here.

Q - Since you are always writing, you must always be listening to what people are saying.

A - No question about it. My antennas are always up. I'm always listening for someone to say something. That's something when I speak to young songwriters I'm always saying that. There's songs all around you if you just listen and watch and be aware. It's amazing where the songs come from. It's kind of conditioning yourself to just be aware and have your ears open. There's phrases all the time. People are always saying things and they don't even realize they are saying it. I'm always writing down things people say, things that I say. Sometimes I'll make a comment and get my iPad out or a pen and piece of paper and just jot it down. I keep a notebook of all those phrases and lines. I keep a running notebook of all that.

Q - It must be difficult to write on the road with all you have to do. When you get some down time is when you must put the songs together.

A - Yeah. Then I'll come back to my notes. Today I'm working on a song with a friend. We've been working together a lot lately. He's a new writer. You wouldn't know his name, but he's a talented guy. I bet you he's gonna be a big songwriter some time. A lot of times I'll come into a co-writing session with someone and more times than not, we'll start with a blank page so to speak. Then a lot of times I'll refer to my notebook and look for some lines. I keep lines that were just lines, but then I keep a section that are more like titles, like a premise for a title of a song. So, I'll refer to those in a lot of cases. Sometimes I'll hear someone say a phrase or I'll see it in a TV show or I'll think of a line and then I'll jump on it right there and start with a guitar riff. Sometimes it will start with a guitar piece of music or lick and then sometimes I'll try to marry those two together. So really the impetus is kind of different all the time. It moves around. There's always something that inspires some way or another I think. I always try to keep something close at hand that I can record. My iPad is great. I can't tell you how many times I've pulled off to the side of the road and put my recorder in record. I'd either hum or sing a guitar lick or say a phrase into my little recorder here. My iPad is great for that, so I love it.

Q - You are also a painter. Did you take up painting because of the boredom of the road or because of the stress you are sometimes under?

A - That boredom on the road has been great, has be a great relief release for painting for sure. In hotel rooms I like to watercolor, so that's great. I used to draw and paint back in Indiana when I was a kid. My dad used to draw. He doodled and was kind of a cartoonist more or less. He was really good. I never could understand how he did that, so I tried to do it as a kid. I have three brothers and they all draw, doodled. One brother is an illustrator. That's what he does for a living, or almost does it for a living I should say. (Laughs). He's a real talented guy. He's really artistic. I do it just for fun. I've done it through the years. I've done a series of lithographs that we make available on our website. They are great for charity events. I'll do a piece of art. A lot of people expect me to give a guitar or a musical theme for a charity auction. A lot of times I'll do a piece of art and they don't expect that. In a lot of cases they don't even know that I paint. So, it really is something different. I'm actually doing my first real, proper show in October (2013) and it runs through the end of the year. It's going to be at the Tennessee State Museum. I'm really excited about that. I've been asked through the years, never thinking I was in a place deserving of that. We have 21 pieces that are going to be in this show. It's kind of a mixed media. Mostly watercolors. Watercolors with pen and ink. It's gonna be a really cool show.

Q - I have noticed that if musicians aren't playing music, they are painting like you are or taking photos.

A - You are exactly right. Our pool house is set up as a studio, art studio, so we have a recording studio here on our property as well. So, I'll be in one of those two buildings at any given time. Some days I'll work on music for a few days then I'll be wanting to take a break or a distraction from that and some days I'll go out to the pool house and work on artwork. It really is great hopping back and forth.

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Steve Wariner