(Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
If Steve Wariner ’s life were made into a movie, Kevin Costner is the logical choice to portray him: he’s the good guy. In many ways he epitomizes the best of country music’s past three decades, with his musical roots reaching further back. He spans a country music era ranging from 8-track tapes to the MP3. These days, he’s also looking into future career options for the solo artist existing without a major label contract.
His new CD Steal Another Day is his 24th album since he debuted in 1982 with a self-titled vinyl LP for RCA — which was also on 8-track tape. The new CD was recorded at his home studio and is on his own label, Selectone Records, the first time he’s been off a major label. And it was by his own choice. “I’m one of the lucky ones that still gets a chance to do it,” he told me. “We could have done this on a major label, but doing it this way, I think you can feel or hear the freedom in it. Another thing is having 16 cuts on this album. Since day one, when I first started writing songs and getting cuts, I formed my own publishing company back then. Now I have the freedom to put 16 songs on here. Most labels won’t let you put more than 10 songs on, maybe 11 songs, because they don’t want to pay those publisher’s fees And therefore you wouldn’t see a lot of these personal songs on here. Since I’m my own publisher, even on co-written songs, I can cut deals with myself. So I’m free to put personal songs, such intimate little looks, on here that I want.”
He’s referring to such songs as “There Will Come a Day (Holly’s Song)” for his diabetic stepdaughter and “In My Heart Forever (For Chet),” the tribute song to his mentor, guitar legend Chet Atkins .
Wariner’s official country career began 30 years ago when the salty country star Dottie West plucked him from an Indiana country music club and hired him as her bass player. At age 17, he was soon performing on the Grand Ole Opry with West. From there he joined veteran hitmaker Bob Luman ’s band. Luman died in 1978 at the fairly young country music age of 51.
Then, Wariner’s hero, Chet Atkins, hired him as his bass player and signed him to a “singles” deal at RCA
Atkins later “fired him” from his band when Wariner had a Top 10 hit with “Your Memory” in 1980. “Chet called me in,” recalled Wariner, “and said that now I had a hit, it was time for him to fire me and time for me to put a band together and get my career on the road. It was a total shock. He called me into the office there at the old RCA building in his big office upstairs and said, ’Have a seat there. You’ve got a big hit record. And I hate to do this, but I’m gonna have to fire you.’”
But, as Wariner quickly realized, it was sage career advice and was just what he needed to launch his own solo venture.
“When I got my first No. 1 record, with ’All Roads Lead to You,’ in 1981,” he recalled, “my bus driver gave me a plaque with the Billboard chart on it with me on the top of the heap. I still have it, and I was looking at it recently and the people I was competing with were Willie Nelson , Conway Twitty , Merle Haggard — it was a list you couldn’t believe and that’s who my competition was. I’m sure they saw me as a snotty-nosed kid. I felt like I was being looked at as kind of the outsider. I felt like they saw me as the pop music-edge kind of guy coming in here and trying to change things.”
“Another thing that’s amazing to me in looking back at my first records is that my first three singles were a Top 10, a Top Five and a No.1. But I still could not get an album out. They would not put my album out. That was amazing. I remember going to them and saying, ’What do you guys want? I gave you a No. 1 record, I gave you a Top 10 and I gave you a Top 5, and you still don’t want to put an album out? I look back now and it just blows my mind. It was just such a different era.”
Through 24 albums, Warner has managed to maintain his own clear-eyed vision of country music, of his tradition-based country music. Which is very credible.
“Chet always used to say, ’Just hang in there,’” Wariner said. “‘The music is gonna win eventually. The music always wins.’”