You could fill a small factory-outlet store with cutout-bin specials that feature forgotten New Dylans. Steve Forbert hasn't been forgotten — or he shouldn't be — because his witty and warm songwriting has aged as sweetly as small-batch bourbon. The Place and the Time, released at the end of March, is his thirteenth studio album, a recording that tips a romantic and hopeful hat to '70s singer-songwriter pop, while retaining just enough laconic irony to keep listeners from getting too comfortable with his caramel-coated drawl. Forbert stopped along the Pennsylvania turnpike for a chat with B-Sides about the new album and the evolution of his unique optimism.
B-Sides: Has there ever been a time in the last 30 years when you haven't been on the road?
Steve Forbert: I don't do four months on the road with a band every day, though that would be interesting. But playing solo, I don't like to be off the road for more than two weeks. I wouldn't want to go a month without playing. I just like to stay in practice with the basics.
You namecheck James Taylor and Seals & Crofts for this album — not exactly the coolest of references.
You're right. I might have even mentioned America in there. It's not like mentioning the Cramps or the Velvet Underground. But those songs, like "Sweet Baby James," are classic. And America and Seals & Crofts, we're talking about "Summer Breeze" and the obvious "A Horse with No Name." They're really good tracks.
Is there something about that style that appealed to you?
Those names aren't worn out. It could have been Harry Chapin or, dare I say it, even John Denver. There was a time when you had a good song and a good singer, and that's the way you made records. Those are people who made appropriate records for what they were doing, almost effortlessly it seemed, because there were so many of them. Albert Hammond, even Jimmy Buffett early on. I was interested in getting back to that. I maybe caught the tail end of that with my first and second record. People don't make records like that now; maybe they're even a little hard to make.
Reggie Young [session guitarist on classic albums by Elvis, Dusty Springfield and Waylon Jennings] is all over this album. His tone is unmistakable.
He was very impressive. My expectations were high, but I was really entertained. Tone is the word. I asked him about his amp and his guitar, and he said it's just a '65 Deluxe Reverb, and he bought his guitar off a wall in Memphis. He wasn't using anything unattainable. It's kind of a mystery. On one song he seemed to simulate a steel-drum part. I thought that was wonderful.
The new songs have a very relaxed delivery. Do you think it's possible to be too laid-back when recording?
I'll say it can be deceptive. Sometimes you think you're having a great time making a record, and there just isn't any sand in the oyster. There have been some records I've made where I had no disagreements with the producer, and then later they sounded too smooth-sailing. Others seemed difficult and then later seemed worth it. But I can't give you any rules or an ironclad theory. I'm pretty happy with this new record at this point. We've been through with it since January, and usually at this point I'm seeing things I'd like to do differently. But this one sounds like it's supposed to.
You've learned a lot from the blues, but would it be fair to say you're one of the great optimists of American songwriting?
I'm afraid so. We got a review that someone blasted out in Performing Songwriter recently, and they were almost on the brink of taking me to task for that. It's funny. It's an ongoing theme that I can't avoid. I think it gets a little more battered. I started out with "You Cannot Win (If You Do Not Play)" — hello! That's 100 percent. And then I had a song, "About a Dream," and that was more like 70 percent, and at this point I've gotten to lines like, "Live on dreams, that might do, even if dreams don't come true." What's that? Maybe 28 percent? That's a long way from "You cannot win if you do not play." Now we're getting into self-deception, the delusion it takes to get out of bed in the morning. I guess I'm still incorrigibly optimistic.