Talking Holiday & Guitar Spirit with Steve Wariner
When you’re talking with guitar legend Steve Wariner, the influence of his mentor of Chet Atkins is never far away. It was Atkins that signed Wariner to RCA Records and it was there he would start off a career that would reel off nine #1’s and a long line of Top 10 hits, including “Your Memory,” “By Now,” “All Roads Lead To You,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” and “Small Town Lover.” More modern country fans will recognize standard ballads like “Two Teardrops,” “I’m Already Taken,” and “Holes in the Floor of Heaven.” Wariner walked away from the big-label country music business in 2003 and created his own indie label, Selectone Records. This newfound freedom allowed him to follow his muse and pay tribute to the man who got him started in the first place with 2009’s My Tribute to Chet Atkins. After making it available only through his website the last few years, his holiday album Guitar Christmas is being released to the masses for this first time this fall.
We caught up with Wariner just before he was headed out to finish up another brand new project, a spring 2011 album called Guitar Laboratory. The conversation covered vintage guitars, the Opry, the special place Telecasters have in his heart and of course, the eternal influence Chet Atkins will cast over his career.
Does the new album have you in the Christmas spirit yet?
That gets you in the spirit. When we recorded that, it was the middle of the summer in the heat so it’s kind of hard to get in the spirit of Christmas. But, yes, I get in the spirit when I hear that. Doing those great Christmas songs really gets you in the mood. But I love Christmas music. It doesn’t take much for me. I love it. I’m usually tired of it by the time Christmas rolls around, but I love a Christmas song.
It must be hard to get in that mode when it’s summertime and 100% humidity there in Nashville.
Boy, that’s for sure. I did a Christmas album years ago for MCA that Brown Bannister produced. It was interesting. We cut that in the middle of the summer as well. To get in the mood, we hung Christmas decorations around the studio and put up a Christmas tree in the middle of July. That was kind of a neat little thing. We had a little Christmas dinner and it turned out to be pretty cool. But on this project, it was pretty much just me and my engineer Randy Gardner. From the start, that was the idea. We wanted it to be pretty minimalistic. We wanted it as if someone was in your living room playing Christmas songs. There’s no accompaniment, no studio trickery. It is what it is. You can hear breathing, finger squeaks from the fret board.
I think the first thing I would say is that it’s just Steve Wariner by himself. I think that’s the first one I’ve even done that way. Most the time I bring in some guests and some friends and at least some kind of rhythm section. But on this particular one, it’s just as if I were in their living room playing Christmas songs. The fun part of it for me was that I was able to use a lot of different guitars on this one. I used a guitar that Chet Atkins had given me years ago on a couple songs. But other than that, I think I used a different guitar on every single song. And even a friend of mine had a dulcimer that plays like a guitar. It plays like a guitar, but it’s a dulcimer. I borrowed that from him. He had it at my house one day and I said that I was going to play a Christmas song on it someday. He let me borrow it. So I played a song called “I Saw Three Ships” on it. Like an artist using colors, I was using guitars to paint.
You’ve become one of Nashville’s biggest guitar experts and aficionados and you mentioned using a variety of different guitars. Is there an ability to capture the sounds of different eras through the use of those different instruments?
I think there is. Definitely. One song that comes to mind is one from my childhood. It is a song by Chet Atkins. As a kid, you never dreamed I’d be working with him, touring with him and producing records with him. But he did a Christmas album that he did “Winter Wonderland.” It was kind of fun playing his guitar on “Winter Wonderland.” I re-cut it with his guitar and I tried to get that real retro sound so I used that long tape delay and a ribbon mic and I tried to be really true to how it was recorded. I tried that retro feel. So, yes, you can use those old guitars and old amps and mics and try and recreate that sound in this modern digital world. Although I did mix to analog tape. We mixed to half inch analog tape- which I always do. It’s fun to try and recreate that. But when you listen to those great old records and they’re using those great old pressers, mics and amps, it’s really cool. The gear-head part of me comes out. I really love to try and get that old kind of sound.
You’re mainly a Telecaster guy–what’s so special about that guitar for you?
I don’t know. I just always loved it. I guess it started with the influence of James Burton and Buck Owens and those West Coast guys that always played telecasters. I just always loved that twangy sound and the bending of the strings. I’ve always gravitated to the Telecaster for some reason. When I was a kid, I learned to play on a Fender Jazzmaster. My dad had a Jazzmaster so I learned to play on that. I’d pretend it was a Telecaster. In my mind, it was a Telecaster at least. But I’d try and play high end and high tone out of it as I could and pretend it was. But then when I was in high school, I was able to buy my own guitar and it was a Telecaster of course. I don’t know. I loved Gretsch guitars. That was as I got older, probably because of Chet Atkins and George Harrison. George played that because of Chet, of course. But I could never afford a Gretsch at our local music store. They were pretty expensive back in the day. I ended up holding onto my Telecaster and always played that. So now I’ve got some vintage Gretsch guitars that I like to play and it was fun to bring out some of my favorite guitars to play on this album. It was fun to sort of “cast” the different guitars to match the song. Like on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” I used a Jerry Jones baritone guitar. I kind of cast different guitars for different songs.
You’re at a place in your career where you can have some historical perspective on what influence Chet Atkins had on you as a guitar player and a person. Talk to me about that.
I learned so much from Chet. I look back on those days with awe. We were and remained friends from when we first met until he passed away in 2001. I learned so much from him, not only musically speaking. I learned a ton guitar-wise. He taught me so much just being around him and teaching me different licks. But I also learned a ton watching him work in the studio. I learned a lot. Quite honestly, he taught me a lot about life. It was how he treated people. It was how he conducted himself. I guess when it’s all said and done; he was the biggest role model for me other than my father. All the way around, he really really was. I remained close to his wife. She passed away this past November. And also with his daughter, Merle. I stay in close contact with her. So yes, those are lessons for me. I think you’re right. I think when you’re learning the lessons through life, you don’t always see them as lessons until later in life. Later you look at the better way of life you had just by being around him.
You did a beautiful tribute album to him this past year and I read where you moved Chet’s daughter Merle to tears through the perspective you were able to put on it from that close relationship with Chet.
I appreciate that. The first thing I did was call Merle and Leona before I did anything. I told them that I had started the project but that I wasn’t going any farther until I got their blessing. They had to sign off on it. Leona was really funny. I said that I’m doing this tribute to Chet. I said, “I’m doing this tribute to someone you know and love and his name is Chet Atkins.” We both started laughing. She said, “Oh I think that’s great. I think everyone should do one.” (Laughter) I thought that was really funny. I loved it that they loved it. I went and played the whole thing for them first. And some of the things that Merle said really hit me hard. Some of the personal things she said about her dad were things I hadn’t ever heard her talk about that way. I thought it was great that she was very proud of this album. It made me feel great. When I won a GRAMMY with it, that’s the first thing I said, too. “I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for Chet. I wouldn’t even have a career.” It’s really true. He gave me my first chance to make records. He was something else. I sure miss him a lot.
I think Leona is on to something. I think every artist should have to make a Chet Atkins tribute album.
(Laughter) That’s hilarious. I went over to their house and played them the album. There’s a song on there called “Leona.” I said, “Leona, this is your song.” And then I played it on a little boom box there in their living room. We got about halfway through the song and I did one of those fast very Chet arpeggio licks. And as soon as I played that lick on the song, she looked at me and smiled and said, “You little devil…” (Laughter) That’s the very best compliment. She knew I was ripping him off the whole time. “You little devil…” I still love it.
You’ve been an Opry member since 1996- you’ll be celebrating your 15th year next year–what’s that membership meant to you over the years?
It means a whole lot. It means the whole world to me. I became a member back in 1996, but the first time I played the Opry was back in 1973. The first time I played it, it was still at the Ryman. I was a member of Dottie West’s band. I was 17 when I first played it. It means the world to me being raised around it and hearing it on the radio. It means a lot. I went out this weekend–Blake Shelton was inducted. And we hung out with him and to be part of that. He had a great line. He said something like the Grand Ole Opry is a song and we’re all artists to sing it. It was a neat perspective. It means the world to me. It’s a great institution. And seeing what it meant to my father. Both my mom and my dad, actually. In those early days, I loved the history of it. You pretty much had to come up through the Opry in those days to have any kind of a career. It was just so powerful. I love being a member and I love the history of where we all come from.
What’s next for you after this holiday album? There’s a good rumor going around that you’re working on an early 2011 release on an album called Guitar Laboratory.
It is a good rumor. I’m actually headed over later today to master it. It’s being mastered as we speak. I’m going to probably sign off on it today. It is called Guitar Laboratory. I say this, it’s the most off-the-wall diverse project I’ve ever done. It covers every genre if you can imagine. It covers everything I love to play. It has chicken picking country, jazz, swing jazz and pop–and I even wrote a song with my 23-year-old son that’s a French World War II type of tune for it. My older son, Ryan, and I wrote a real rocking Beck-ish type of piece called “Stingray” that closes the album. It’s in-your-face rock and roll. And it’s fun. We got out the big amplifiers for that one. (Laughter) It was real fun. It covers a lot of different kinds of styles. There’s some acoustic guitar on it and I got out my old Strats and a lot of my old guitars. Paul Yandell, my good friend who worked with Chet for many years–we did a song called “Pals” that we both play old Gretsch guitars on. The only song I didn’t write is I re-cut Hank Garland’s “Sugarfoot Rag.” And I brought on legendary guitar player Leon Rhodes. He became famous working with Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours. I brought him in and he still plays great. It’s real swing. It’s a different interpretation from what you’ve heard before on “Sugarfoot Rag.” It was a lot of fun, but all over the map style-wise. People are either going to think that I’m really cool or just lost my mind. I haven’t decided yet. (Laughter)
Well, in this day of reality television, any mental breakdown or commitment to a local mental hospital just might be good for a career.
(Laughter) You just might be right. I hope so, actually.
One last question for you: What is country music to Steve Wariner?
Wow. Awesome question. It’s not necessarily what you hear on the radio today on country music radio in my opinion. To me, country music is those real stories and those great songs with some fiddle and steel guitar in the background. I think it’s about songs from the heart that are not only well-written but well-crafted. They’re story-songs. They’re songs about real life. They’re the kind that Merle Haggard writes–tales of the working people. To me, that’s what country is. I love real-deal country. I’m really the kind of guy that likes all kinds of music. But when I want country, I want real-deal country. I like jazz and I love swing, but when I want to listen to country, I don’t want it to resemble anything else. There’s my editorial. How about that? (Laughter)
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