Sometimes it’s best to quit trying so hard and just let things fall into place naturally. This trick worked for Steve Wariner, whose career has caught a second wind 20 years after the release of his first single.
One of country music’s most consistent hit-makers, Wariner racked up more than 25 Top 10 singles before taking a self-imposed hiatus from country radio (and its politics) with 1996’s No More Mr. Nice Guy. The tongue-in-cheek titled project of original instrumentals was a labor of love for the easy-going Wariner. Zigzagging his way through Chet Atkins-esque country, jazz and pop numbers, the consummate guitar player made the album knowing darn well that radio programmers wouldn’t touch it.
And they didn’t touch it–not with a ten foot pole.
The refreshed singer, picker and songwriter has come back with a string of hits he penned for himself and other country stars. Now those same radio programmers have Wariner’s stamp placed all over their playlists. His guitar work and scatting on Garth Brooks’ “Longneck Bottle,” a song he co-wrote, helped the single reach No. 1 on the charts. Wariner’s duet with Anita Cochran, “What If I Said,” reached the same spot a few weeks later. He wrote “Nothing But The Taillights” for Clint Black and “One Small Miracle” for Bryan White. Now, just weeks after asking to be released from his recording contract with Arista Records, Wariner has solidified his hold on the country charts with “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven.” The sentimental ballad–written by Wariner and Billy Kirsch–is the centerpiece of his new, self-produced Capitol Records album Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down.
So, in other words, he got to make the guitar-driven album he always wanted to do, take a much-deserved breather, switch record labels at will and comeback hotter than ever as an artist, songwriter and producer. Does it sound like a dream come true? Well, also consider that he was made an official member of the prestigious Grand Ole Opry cast during the interim. And, oh yeah, he was able to round up superstars such as Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to sing with him on the new CD.
“From my end of it,” the grateful singer says, “it looks like the greatest plan put to paper. But it all couldn’t have happened any more coincidentally. I just wanted to lay back a little bit, take time to regroup and give myself a break. I’ve been going at it hard since 1973 as a teenager playing (bass) on the road with Dottie West. While I was laying low, staying clear of radio and record label wars, I shifted gears and focused on the world of songwriting and publishing.
“I’ve always written for myself. If I wrote a song that I thought was a hit, I would sit on it and record it myself. Since I hit a spell where I wasn’t doing much recording, I figured I would pitch some of my newer songs around to other artists.” Wariner has heard himself over the radio for two decades, but he is now getting the kick of having others covering his material on the radio. “I was sitting in a car in front of a restaurant and I heard ‘Longneck Bottle’ on the radio for the first time. That was the most awesome thing. I’ve heard myself for years on radio, so that’s not as much of a thrill as hearing somebody like Garth Brooks and Clint Black do your song. That’s probably hard to understand for someone that’s never heard their record on the radio, but from a writer’s point of view, this is a new experience for me.”
The Grammy-winner says he didn’t fret over the fate of his recording career during his hiatus from radio. “I just kept plugging away, trying to write good songs,” the affable star says. “That’s just the way I’ve always been. I don’t worry about that kind of stuff too much.”
He had less to worry about after he gave some of his peers a taste of “Holes In The Floor of Heaven.” Garth Brooks, on flight to appear on The Tonight Show, and Tim McGraw, at Wariner’s home in Tennessee, each instantly realized the power of “Holes” when Wariner played them the song he wrote. With encouragement from McGraw, Brooks and others, Wariner had enough confidence in “Holes” that he went into the studio and cut the song when he was between record labels–before he knew anyone would even release it.
After gladly letting Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Bryan White turn his compositions into hits, Wariner wisely decided to stash away “Holes” for himself. Known to longtime country fans as the singer of such chart toppers as “Life’s Highway,” “You Can Dream of Me” and “The Weekend,” Wariner has never obtained the kind of immediate response he’s achieving with “Holes.” Currently rising up the country singles chart, the song’s hopeful lyrics about death and remembrance (in which rain drops are depicted as tears of those watching over us in heaven) have personal meaning to its singer.
“I lost my grandmother a few years back,”Wariner explains. “She was the only grandparent I ever knew. She used to live with us, and she practically raised us five kids. I was really close to her, so I think about her when I sing the song–especially the first verse. The song, in general, also makes me think of a good buddy named Kenny Craft who passed away three years ago. We were raised up together in the same Indiana town and he played drums for a band that I played guitar in. He was the funniest guy I’ve ever met. He had a real dry sense of humor. We were super, super close. I miss him a lot.”
As soon as “Holes In The Floor of Heaven” hit radio in March, phone calls and letters started pouring into Capitol Records and Wariner’s management office from listeners who found the song moving. “They want to tell you their story,” Wariner notes. “That’s a great compliment–it tells me that the song is touching people. I got a letter from a girl who said her mother had passed away two weeks before she heard the song. She was in her car when the song came on the radio, and she started crying so hard she had to pull over to the side of the road. After she composed herself, she got back on the road. But by the time she got home, it started raining and she started crying again.
“I’ve had some songs in the past I thought were real powerful and said some great things, but I’ve never put out a record that has gotten this kind of response, one that touches people in such a deep place.”