‘Still playing’ for loyal listeners: Meridian native Steve Forbert honored for excellence in music

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Steve Forbert performs after being awarded with the excellence in music award during the Mississippi Arts Commission 2020 Governor’s Arts Awards, Thursday, February 6, 2020, in Jackson, Miss.

In the crowd, hips moved with rhythm and lips moved with lyrics, and folk rocker Steve Forbert did what he’s been doing for decades on stages across the country and beyond, and here in the state of his birth. He delivered story through song in a voice that makes you lean in and listen, with acoustic guitar, harp and foot fueling the drive (guitarist George Naha folding in, too, this time) and fans tickled to catch the ride.

These were fellow Mississippians and decades-long followers at a Jackson show — one, just a seventh-grader the first time he heard Forbert, then in ninth grade, at a Meridian teen center.

“That’s really what it’s about,” Forbert says of loyal listeners who never strayed out of earshot. “That’s mostly who I’m still playing for, and it suits me just fine.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves, left, congratulates Steve Forbert after being awarded with the excellence in music award during the Mississippi Arts Commission 2020 Governor’s Arts Awards, Thursday, February 6, 2020, in Jackson, Miss.

Forbert recently picked up a Governor’s Award for Excellence in Music — one of five arts recipients in the annual celebration of mastery and achievement on Mississippi’s creative cultural landscape.

“It’s an honor. … I’ve been at this for 50 years, counting all the time in Meridian, and I’ve tried to write the best songs I could, so to get some kind of recognition like this, it’s really great.

“It might mean that I’m getting a little older, you know, and so there’s some retro-spective,” he says, pausing between the syllables so it sounds like two words. It prompts the same kind of cool auditory double take his cleverest lyrics do.

Last May, he received a star on the Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience’s Walk of Fame in his Meridian hometown. This past Christmas, a remastered collector’s edition vinyl of his “Jackrabbit Slim” celebrated the album’s 40th anniversary. Collectors snapped up the first run in red vinyl. The next batch (not numbered, in green) should be out in a few weeks. He’s a key draw in this summer’s Americana UK festival in England.

On the horizon, likely in April, keep an eye and ear out for Forbert’s first cover record, “Early Morning Rain.” “It’s 11 of my favorites,” he says, with only one, Bob Dylan’s “Dignity,” later than 1973. It includes Jimmie Rodger’s “Frankie and Johnny,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” the Gordon Lightfoot tune of the title and more. “I wish I could release this record as a magic wand,” he says, renewing people’s appreciation for the fine craftsmanship and lyrics these songs represent.

Many appreciate just those qualities in his music. Longtime fan and Jackson attorney John Flynt nominated Forbert for the Governor’s Award. “I just have always respected the manner in which he’s gone about pursuing his craft, staying true to himself, and writing the music that he feels like tells the stories that need to be told,” Flynt says, with Forbert’s recent “The Magic Tree” as good as anything done in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Forbert left Mississippi in his early 20s, bound for New York City and a career in music. That journey included high-profile gigs, critically acclaimed albums, his smash hit “Romeo’s Tune,” a Grammy nomination for his tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, renowned musicians performing his songs on the album “An American Troubadour: The Songs of Steve Forbert,” and more.

Four decades later, his songs’ rich imagery, storytelling depth and everyman appeal continue to connect across state and country borders. Time is ripe for a look back at all that excellence in music, and a look ahead to more.

Forbert’s 2018 memoir, “Big City Cat: My Life in Folk-Rock,” written with friend and editor Therese Boyd, has earned praise for its warmth and stories. It’d started as an idea for a stage play, with songs and anecdotes for a musical of sorts, but logistics didn’t gel and Forbert, stories in hand, figured, “Why don’t I keep going?” The result is a conversational look back over his years on America’s music scene.

The play notion may not be completely dead. There’s still a song, “I Just Work Here” (from the 2004 album “Just Like There’s Nothin’ to It”) with potential for that kind of presentation, he says. “It’s a person complaining about having to work and work all the time, just to get by … that still kind of gets me going about this idea, but one song, in my mind, does not a successful play make,” he laughs and shrugs, “so I say, ‘Hmm, maybe.’”

“The Magic Tree” is a companion to his memoir — “good songs that deserved to be exposed,” he says of the collection of demos, some live performances and a few new tunes. “We fleshed them out and they put it out on vinyl, so we had to draw a midpoint, so you could have a side A and a side B again, like we used to,” he says with a wistful grin.

Mississippi roots resonate in his music and songs. “The music hasn’t really changed that much. Most all the songs can be played with an acoustic guitar. It’s still what you would call folk rock or folk pop. And, since it hasn’t changed so much, to me it’s still basically what I took to New York.

“It toughened up a bit on the streets and in folk clubs and the auditions up there. It toughened up just right, so that when we finally made ‘Alive on Arrival,’ which was a year and a half after I got there, it wasn’t as innocent as it was. It was ready to be on a major label.

“I still feel like I’m doing the same style, so it would have to be a lot of Mississippi. ‘Going Down to Laurel’ and ‘What Kinda Guy’ and ‘Romeo’s Tune’ were written in Meridian, so there you go,” he says. “I have to do those songs in every show, pretty much, and I don’t mind it.”

Nashville was home from 1985 until about three years ago, when he moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey. “I decided I wanted to get on back up north for a while,” and it’s worked out well, he says, with his fun new band, The Renditions.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

But at this moment, he reaches back again, over the decades to those Meridian days, for a quintessential Mississippi tale, circa 1974. He and some bandmates from Laurel were set to play The Vapors on the Coast, “the gig to get in the state,” Forbert says. “In fact, Chris Ethridge was playing The Vapors when he was discovered by Johnny Rivers.

“So we felt good. We were excited. We had a lot of equipment, including a Hammond B3 organ. So, we rented a U-Haul truck with one of those automatic platforms on the back,” he says, “bzzzzz”-ing to demonstrate. “We thought that was so great that when we got to Laurel from Meridian and we’re loading up the Hammond organ, we kept playing, over and over, with the moving platform. What we didn’t realize is, we were completely running the battery down.

“We had, like, three hours to be at sound check. And, we couldn’t start the truck,” he says, breaking in a laugh “We drove down there after we got somebody to come out and fire it up, and we were late.” Too late, turned out.

“We were directed back home. And we drove back to Laurel and we never played The Vapors. So I had to go to New York City to get started.”

And he had to come back to Mississippi for the embrace of home state pride the Governor’s Arts Awards represents.

Fellow honorees in the 2020 Mississippi Governor’s Arts Awards are:

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Henry Danton accepts the lifetime achievement in dance award.

Henry Danton, for Lifetime Achievement in Dance — Danton, 100 years old and a native of England, is a renowned ballet dancer and teacher based in Petal, who still passes on his extensive knowledge of the art form to students in south Mississippi and at Belhaven University. A professional dance career started at age 21 included performing with international dance companies in London and Paris, and founding the company that would become the Venezuelan National Ballet.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The Jackson Southernaires accept the lifetime achievement in music award.

The Jackson Southernaires, for Lifetime Achievement in Music — The trend-setting gospel group, formed in 1940, was the first in the state to wrap guitar, drums and bass into the gospel music mix, starting a practice that’s still going strong. The Stella Award-winning, Grammy-nominated group has released 28 albums, with 11 charting on on Billboard’s gospel albums chart.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Richard Kelso was awarded and honored for excellence in visual art.

Richard Kelso, for Excellence in Visual Art — Kelso, originally from Cleveland and now of Jackson, is a celebrated and widely collected landscape painter whose studies with Sammy Britt at Delta State University and famed colorist Henry Hensche at the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, helped him develop a way of seeing and capturing Mississippi places in all their natural beauty.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

President of Tougaloo College Carmen J. Walters accepts the preservation of arts award for Tougaloo College.

Tougaloo College Art Collections, for Preservation of the Arts — The college’s fine art collection, started in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, now numbers 1,500 works in a variety of media — works on paper, sculptures, paintings, decorative arts and textiles — representing important modern and contemporary American, European, African, African American and Oceanic artists and cultures. The collection is a vital educational resource that also serves the cultural needs of the broader community.

Join us in Steve’s hometown of Meridian for Marshall’s Mississippi Thursday, March 12, at The MAXX.