Country music star and Greenville native Steve Azar caught the blues and soul bug through osmosis, not genetics. Though his Lebanese genes didn’t factor into his deep-seated love for the Mississippi Delta, his childhood time spent behind a liquor store did.
It was his grandfather’s business, Jigger and Jug. As the first legal liquor store in the state, it attracted many interesting folks with whom young Azar became friends. One he remembers distinctly is Eugene Powell, aka “Sonny Boy Nelson.”
“I say Sonny Boy was a mentor, but really he just let me hang out, and I was cool with that,” Azar said. “The postmen would come to the back of the liquor store after a day’s work and listen to Sonny Boy play. At 11 years old I wasn’t thinking about why I was emotionally connected to the music. I just was.”
Azar wasted no time in putting his hands on a guitar and learning to play. He began writing songs regularly at age 12, he says, and he would sneak out of the house, strap a guitar to his back and head for the nearest juke joint, humming along the way. What he found in those back alley blues joints became his saving grace.
Even if Azar’s early exposure to the blues set him up for a career of writing and performing, no one at the time would have predicted he would wind up a recipient of a Governor’s Arts Award. But he did just that this week when he was designated the 2018 Governor’s Choice by the Mississippi Arts Commission.
Nicknamed “The Delta Man” by friends and colleagues, Azar didn’t achieve musical fame the traditional Nashville way. But his persistent personality, helped with a bit luck, won the hearts of producers, Mercury Nashville signed him in 2002.
His biggest fans in the Delta cheered as he recorded I Don’t Have To Be Me ‘Til Monday, one of the five most played songs of the last decade on country radio, and Waitin’ on Joe, among others, which reflected his Delta upbringing. From there he hopped on the Nashville bandwagon, touring with Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts.
“I’ve always written songs brought on by pain that had silver linings,” Azar said. “I learned that from the old guys I grew up listening to.”
Azar said he hears the Delta and feels its unique, pastoral soul running through his lyrics every time he gets on stage.
Even though his agents told him he was “too Mississippi,” he felt he owed everything to the Delta because the region created him. His roots pulled him back to Greenville 20 years later.
Upon his return, Azar said, he realized children needed exposure to the arts. Through the Steve Azar St. Cecilia Foundation, he and his wife, Gwen, raise money to help sick, disadvantaged and abused children, mostly in the Delta, as well as nurture the art and music movement for children. The organization has distributed more than $700,000 since its inception in 2006.
To raise money each fall and summer, Azar hosts the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival and Delta Soul Celebrity Golf and Charity Event in Greenville.
Wesley Smith, executive director of the Greenville-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, nominated his friend for the Governor’s Arts Award not only because of his musical accomplishments but also for his philanthropic endeavors in the Mississippi Delta.
“Steve sees opportunities that correlate with what he absolutely loves to do,” Smith said. “He stayed true to his roots in his songwriting. He’s always kept the Delta region in his heart. I thought that spoke to what the award was.”
From a tourism perspective, Azar’s charity events and festivals are pushing the pulse of the Delta to an even higher rate. His events expose one of the most distinct parts of the Mississippi region to people who previously might have looked the other way. More than 20 states and 20 countries were represented at the festival this past September, and Azar said he and others are targeting “up and coming” acts for the 2018 festival. He describes the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival as “the most hospitable festival in the world.”
“Statistics show that once people come to the Delta they want to come again and again and again,” Smith said. “A lot of that is thanks to Steve.”
Coming home to Greenville 20 years after the roller coaster ride in Nashville was a blessing for his kids, too, Azar said. They were 15, 13 and 10 at the time, and now they aspire to pursue visual arts, medicine and culinary arts, respectively.
“All of the kids ended up finding themselves here in the Delta,” he said. “Whatever time they had here, something seemed to seep in and mold them into who they are today. I don’t think that would’ve happened in Nashville.”
While Azar is beloved around the world, he couldn’t be more appreciated than in his home state of Mississippi. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove deemed March 13 Steve Azar Day in appreciation of his contributions to the state. More recently Gov. Phil Bryant named Azar the Music & Culture Ambassador of Mississippi to be the face of tourism.
“The governor gets it,” Azar said. “He believes Mississippi is the birthplace of American music, and he’s right. I’m honored to be the ambassador.”