Before he established himself as a major label recording artist or an award-winning songwriter, Steve Wariner worked as a sideman, touring with the likes of Chet Atkins, Bob Luman, and Dottie West. Those seminal experiences shaped an enduring career that would lead to his own string of hits, including “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” “Some Fools Never Learn,” and “The Weekend.”
Known as a musician’s musician, Wariner has collected four Grammys in his career due to collaborations with Asleep at the Wheel, Vince Gill, Mark O’Connor, Brad Paisley, and Ricky Skaggs, among others. A Grand Ole Opry member since 1996, the good-natured Indiana native invited CMT.com to his home studio to chat the earliest days of his career.
CMT: I want to start by asking about the Musicians Hall of Fame. Why is that honor special to you?
SW: I think because it really brings me full circle. I know that’s real cliché, but it really does. I came here as a teenager, I wanted to play music, I wanted to play in somebody’s band. I had a job when I came here working for Dottie West. I met her in Indiana and she brought me here. So it really brings me back full circle to being what I started to do in the first place — to be a musician and come here to Music City.
You were what, 10 years old when you started playing?
Yeah, I was real young. I started singing in church when I was probably younger than that. I remember as a little bitty kid, my dad would get me up in church and sing with him. My dad was in a huge family, so I had lots of aunts and uncles, and everybody sang and played. But yeah, about 10, I started playing with my dad out in public. He played American Legions, VFW’s, just for weekends — and extra money, probably looking back now — but he loved music.
What did he think of Dottie West?
Oh, when I was a kid he was in love with Dottie West. I remember when the record Paper Mansions came out, I was a kid in the late ’60s. We lived in Louisville, Kentucky, at this time, and I remember my dad was like, “I love this record, I love Dottie West.” So I already knew all about her by the time I met her. I was like, “My dad loves you.” And she was really very kind to my mom and dad, too.
I remember my dad was thrilled that I was going to go on the road at a tender of age of 17, 18 years old. I was getting on the road, moving away, and coming here [to Nashville]. Because when he was 17 he was in the Navy. My mom, not so much. I think what put her mind at ease was one day over at Dottie West’s house, over in Green Hills, Dottie put her arm around my mom and she said, “Eileen, I will be like his mother when you’re not around.” …
When the me-too stuff unfolded, I was thinking, “You guys don’t even know all the feminist movement stuff.” I was thinking, “Dottie was doing that in the ’60s, man.” She was girl power all day long back then. I remember when I was working for her, she was using all kinds of salty language — “I’m not letting no men in these record labels tell me what to do….” and she was really headstrong.
You know, trying to talk people into considering her for the Country Music Hall of Fame, I would say, “Guys, she was the first female country artist to win a Grammy — with a song she wrote!” I’m going, “Man, what do you guys want here?” That’s pretty powerful to me. And doing it really in that world, can you imagine that good old boy world? I mean it’s that way now, but can you imagine in ’64 what it was like? My little part of it I saw it big time, the politics, and just the boy’s club, really.
But boy, Dottie had a temper though. She could get mad. I had her mad at me a lot of times because I was a teenager. And a teenager out on the road, and oh my God I was in trouble all the time. I always say I don’t know how she kept from booting me after six months. … I was starting at ground zero because I didn’t know crap about being on the road. They were teaching me from the ground up.
So, did Dottie lead you to Chet Atkins?
Yeah, in a roundabout way. Not long after I started working for her, we went to Europe, and it was all the RCA big acts at the time. They only took one band to back everybody up, so Dottie’s band backed up everybody but Danny Davis. He had his own unit. We played all around England, then London, and then went through Europe from there and played.
Chet was going to do the one in London, and then the rest of Europe – so, the last half. I was so excited because as a kid I had my dad’s Chet Atkins records I studied and lived with. Dottie said, “Well, I’ll introduce you to Chet.” We played Wembley, and I remember meeting him, going down into one of the dressing rooms / locker rooms at Wembley and met Chet.
I was scared. I was just a kid and scared to death. And he was so kind. It was just a quick hello. But then I re-met him in I think ’76, and that’s when I hooked up with him through Paul Yandell. But that was the first time I met Chet. And he was really as I thought he would be — he was real kind. He certainly didn’t have to be. I was just a little kid bass player with Dottie, and he took the time and made an impression.
Chet signed you to your first record deal, right?
Yeah, he did. I signed in ’77, with him and with RCA. I didn’t understand all the politics going on, but the very first thing he did, once he committed to signing me, he said, “You should go with…” and he started naming some other producers to produce me, and I go, “No. I want you to produce me.” He goes, “I’m stepping down, and in the midst of retiring, or working that way.” I was like, “Nope, I want you.”
I was an idiot kid. “Nope, I want you to produce me.” And I’m glad he did. He said, “Well, OK. Let’s go in the studio, and let’s cut a few things and see what happens.” So he took me into Studio B, and that’s the first and only time I cut at Studio B. But we went in there and cut some demo kind of stuff. I’m so glad I did that because I might be toward the last people that cut in there. Or close to it anyway.
But your success didn’t happen right away. It took a few years. I was curious how you stayed optimistic during that time.
I wouldn’t have without him. He said, “Hey, man. Just keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll get it.” I was playing with him on the road by this time. He asked me to play in his band, too. I’d been working with Bob Luman, but he had passed away. I remember I was in those meetings with Chet and probably had $10 in my pocket. I was living in Kentucky, and I barely had enough money to get back home.
And he knew that, I think. It couldn’t be because of my wonderful bass prowess, I don’t think. But he offered me to play with him on the road, which he didn’t play a ton, but he played some awesome gigs. He would play Wolf Trap in D.C., or Chicago with the Chicago Symphony. He was doing some awesome gigs. It was better than the Hitching Post that I had been playing, or whatever.
At one point Chet says, “You know, I think you’re not going to have a hit record with me as long as I’m producing. You should go with another producer.” So finally he passed the baton, and he explained some politics stuff that I didn’t understand, and he said, “If you want a hit record, you need to go.”
So I wound up going with Tom Collins and my first record with Tom was a song called “Your Memory” and it went Top 10. When it was a hit, Chet brought me in and said, “You got your first hit.” And I go, “Yeah, man. It’s really good.” Then he goes, “Yeah, congratulations. You’re fired.” And I went, “What?” And he fired me from playing bass.
I always tell young people, that’s a good lesson. If you’re going to get fired, get fired by the best. I know what he was doing. He was just like, “Get on out there, go on and do your stuff.”