One of Nashville’s good guys, Steve Wariner will be inducted into the Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville this month, recognizing his versatility as a lead guitarist and as a hired hand for legends like Chet Atkins, Bob Luman, and Dottie West. He’s also been a Grand Ole Opry member since 1996, although the Indiana native’s been performing there long before receiving that honor, both as a solo artist and a sideman.
From drinking songs like “Longneck Bottle” (recorded by Garth Brooks) to weepers like “The Weekend,” Wariner’s chameleon-like ability certainly has something to do with his long career in country music. With four decades of charting singles starting in the 1970s, he has plenty of material to pull from on his Back on Life’s Highway Tour, which makes five stops in Texas within the next few weeks.
A gracious host whose collection of vintage guitars and studio gear is constantly growing, Wariner invited BGS to his home studio near Franklin, Tennessee, to reflect on a satisfying and eclectic career.
BGS: I was curious to ask you, do you think you have a signature hit?
SW: I would probably say “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” if there was such a thing for me. I get asked about that one the most — probably that or “The Weekend.” I don’t know, I may not have a signature song, you know? A lot of artists do, they have that one. My problem is, I hopped around so much. I’d do something where somebody would cry, and then the next time I’m doing a guitar thing. Then I’d turn around and do a real country thing. And then I would do pop, like “I Got Dreams.” I never could settle on something. I always told people that would be a curse for me.
…Therefore, I don’t know if I do have a signature. With “Holes in the Floor of Heaven,” I’ve never had a song that had that impact for me, just immediately. I couldn’t even count how many letters and emails… if I could count how many times I’ve listened to people’s stories and their loss… and I don’t mind it. “The Weekend” is one that people ask about all the time, too. At shows, I cannot get away without doing “The Weekend” or “Some Fools Never Learn.”
Do you think there’s a common thread that runs through what you have recorded?
Probably not, other than I’ve tried to keep a real level of integrity, you know? I was taught early on to pick great songs if you can and try to let it always be about the song, always, and let the song always win. I was told once years ago, “Don’t cut a song unless you absolutely love it.” Because if you’re lucky enough that it could be a hit, you’ll be singing that thing the rest of your life.
This plays into the Musician’s Hall of Fame, and maybe my guitar might be the common thread. Because throughout it all, except the very early records, I didn’t play on some of those records on my own guitar. I would sit and watch other players play, and I’m thinking, “I want to be playing on my own record,” the solos anyway.
And I’ll give credit to my friend, [studio guitarist] Paul Yandell, who brought me to Chet. He went to [Wariner’s second producer] Tom Collins, and in his defense, Tom just knew me as a singer. And I wrote a little bit, too, but he didn’t know that I was a guitar player, too. Paul went to him and said, “You ought to get Steve to play on this solo.” And I think it was on “Kansas City Lights.” I always loved that about Paul, because that’s something that probably cost him a lot of work, by him saying that. Because all of a sudden I was playing on my own records from then on.
What do you remember about writing “Baby I’m Yours” with Guy Clark?
Guy Clark was amazing. I loved hanging with him. And I got to know him at that point, I got to know him really well, and then we hung out some. … We bonded and were very close after that. The main thing I remember about that day is, there was a restaurant down on Division and we went there and ate. I remember sitting there thinking, “Damn, I’m writing with Guy Clark, this is awesome.” I tried not to let him see that, but he was kind, and really open, very open.
I remember that song being more R&B, more funky, more Guy Clark. And then by the time it got to the studio… I don’t mean this in a negative way, but by the time I got with [producer Jimmy] Bowen, and all the other players in the studio, it turned into what the record is, which I’m not arguing – it’s a No. 1 record, or I think it was, or whatever it turned out to be. But it totally doesn’t sound like a Guy Clark record.
I mean if you heard the demo… which I don’t have a copy. Damn it, I wish I did. A lot of my songs I do have the work tape and it’s hilarious to go, “That’s that song? Wow.” “Longneck Bottle” is that way. If you heard my demo, you’d go, “This don’t even sound like it,” and that’s the way with “Baby I’m Yours.” The way we did it originally really sounds like a Texas thing, a Guy Clark kind of thing, and more of an R&B songwriter thing.
We talked about the span of your career, but when people look back on the ’80s and ’90s in country music, what do you hope that they remember about you, and the music that you made?
That’s a great question. I hear it a lot, “He’s a nice guy.” When I see Vince Gill, he would come up and go, “I’m the nicest guy.” And I’d go, “Dammit, no, I’m the nicest guy.” We’d get in a fistfight over it. But I don’t know, I’d like to be known as a … it makes me smile when people mention a triple threat – that I’m a guitar player, writer, and a singer. I think musicianship always means a lot for me, and I want to be taken seriously as a writer.
So I don’t know, probably those things. That stuff, I’m leaving it up to whatever somebody thinks, that’s up to them. But I guess you just want to be respected more than anything. … I always fall back to Chet. People probably get tired of hearing me talking about Chet Atkins, but he was such an important figure in my life and my career. But I watched him, and it was just his integrity. Everything he did was impeccable, and he had such great taste. And it was really respect.
The first time I recorded with him in Studio A, my first record — I love this — he had a suit and tie on, and it was like the old days: a black suit with a little white shirt and black tie. It was like going to the office, you know? When he walked into Studio A with charts in his hand, all the players got up from their posts and followed him like the pied piper over to the piano. And they all knelt down and got around him, and Chet stood in the middle. That’s not even thought of in a session these days. That’s not even close to that. I know times move on, but I’m so glad I was in the middle of that for a little bit anyway.
I guess where I was going was, I watched the way people revered Chet, and the way he was so respected. They hung on every word he was saying and his vision of, “Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to make this record,” and I love that. It was so good watching that. And I think respect is the main thing, just respect for what you do. Hopefully people would say that I made really good records, you know?
Photo provided by Adkins Publicity