A beat box generates a pulsing, synthetic drum loop throughout “High Time,” the first track on Steve Wariner’s new CD, Faith in You (released May 9). Horns punctuate “Katie Wants a Fast One,” a “country mambo” featuring Wariner and Garth Brooks in a duet. Castanets and an accordion create the South of the Border sound of “Longer Letter Later,” written by Wariner with Rodney Crowell.
All are intriguing. None fit the mold Wariner has cast for himself with past work.
“Around every corner and take to take,” he says during an interview at Capitol Records offices, high above West End Avenue in Nashville, “I wanted to have another surprise where someone goes, ‘Wow, that is different. I never heard you do something like that.’
“I want to take the listener on a journey from start to finish. If I think I’ve taken a bigger bite out of this whole project, in any area, it would be as a producer. I tried to concentrate on coming up with different textures, things that are unique for me.”
In a way, it’s odd that Wariner, 45, would feel compelled to push out his boundaries just now. His last two projects — both for Capitol — have been certified gold for sales of 500,000 copies. “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” from 1998′s Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down, won Country Music Association awards for Single of the Year and Song of the Year. Last year’s follow-up album, Two Teardrops, included the Grammy-nominated title track. (Wariner actually won a Grammy this year, but it was for his contribution to Asleep at the Wheel’s album, Ride With Bob.)
In the early ’70s, the Noblesville, Ind., native played bass with Dottie West before moving on to work with Bob Luman and Chet Atkins. He began having some success as a solo artist beginning in the late ’70s and early ’80s when he recorded for RCA. Wariner shifted to MCA in 1984, then signed to Arista in 1991. He recorded three albums for that label including No More Mr. Nice Guy, an instrumental work, before moving to Capitol in 1998.
According to press material sent out with his new album, Wariner has scored more than 30 Top 10 country hits including 12 No. 1s. The chart-toppers include “Some Fools Never Learn,” “You Can Dream of Me” and “Life’s Highway.” But besides his two previous Capitol releases only one album, 1991′s I Am Ready, has been certified gold, and as yet Wariner has not had a platinum (million-selling) album.
“If I had to pick one thing that gnawed at me, it would be that if I look at my history of sales, I never could grasp why all my peers were selling [and I wasn't],” Wariner states frankly. “I was having the radio success, but I didn’t match it in the sales area. I never could get the politics right, or I was between labels, or whatever the deal was … I certainly think we made some really good albums … I just don’t understand why the sales figures sometimes weren’t up there.”
At Capitol, the figures appear to be climbing. Both of Wariner’s releases for the label have been certified gold, and he continues to enjoy success on country radio. His duet with Clint Black, “Been There,” went to No. 5 on Billboard‘s country singles chart. The song appears on Faith in You. The album’s title track, Wariner’s current single, is in the 30s, and he has enjoyed a string of Top 5 singles including “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” “I’m Already Taken” and “Two Teardrops.” His duet with Anita Cochran, “What If I Said,” went to No. 1 in February 1998.
Few artists on Music Row can boast the diversity of talents Wariner possesses, including singing, guitar-playing, songwriting, producing and performing. Asked to rank his endeavors, he places greatest importance on his songwriting. All 13 tracks — including the closing guitar instrumental, played with his older son, Ryan, and “High Time,” which features Ryan’s younger brother, Ross, on guitar — are written or co-written by Wariner. Two he penned with Bill Anderson, a key influence. He also names Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller as primary role models.
“I’m at a different place than I’ve ever been with my writing,” Wariner feels. “I’m not even close to where I want to be, but I’m at a different place. I’m loving that right now.”
But the guitar playing, he admits, is “what I came here for.” His recent Grammy, with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel for best country instrumental, was especially satisfying since it recognized his prowess on the six-string. From the new album, the country swing tune “I Just Do” allows Wariner to get in some flashy fretwork with session all-stars including drummer Eddie Bayers, bassist Glenn Worf, pianist Matt Rollings, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, guitarists Brent Mason and Biff Watson and fiddler Aubrey Haynie.
Also remarkable is Wariner’s ongoing penchant for love songs and story songs that reflect life’s happy and sad realities. “Turn in the Road,” “Waiting in the Wings,” “Faith in You,” “It Wouldn’t Be Love” and “I Wish I Were a Train,” among the tracks on the new album, are anchored in the values Wariner typically embraces.
“A lot of my outlook and my philosophies or sensitivities or whatever can be attributed to the way I was brought up,” he explains. “My mom and dad instilled that in us, that real sense of family. We were always really, really close, and we still are. We didn’t have a lot growing up, and my mom and dad started their family real young. We all kinda grew up together. A lot of that goes back to them, and a lot of it may be unspoken.”
From that kind of emotional and creative grounding, Wariner feels secure enough to take chances, as he did on Faith in You.
“It’s just the little things you pick up and learn over the years,” he says of his production values. “The evolution finally came to a point where I had these visions of how I wanted my tracks and my songs to be.
“It all came to a head and I thought, ‘I need to do this myself rather than using someone as a middle man. I know the vision I want. Why don’t I just do it myself, rather than try and explain it through someone else?’”