A Scottish adage states, “The child born on Christmas will have a special fortune.” Steve Wariner is living proof. The Musician’s Hall of Fame in Nashville inducted the four-time Grammy winner on October 22, 2019, in recognition of decades of virtuoso guitar playing, singing and songwriting.
Although he is a renowned country music legend, Wariner is fundamentally, to turn a phrase, an eclectic electric artist. To borrow the title of his 2011 album, his chart-topping career has been a “guitar laboratory,” with varied styles in the mix.
The Hall of Fame accolade comes as Wariner, on his retrospective Back on Life’s Highway tour, approaches his 65th birthday. Although never one to rest on his laurels, he agreed to reflect on his journey thus far.
What does the induction mean at this juncture in your life and career?
The biggest thing is I’m being honored solely as a musician, along with Alabama, Don Everly, Rascals vocalist/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, the Surfaris and over a dozen studio heroes from Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The event celebrates not only country but all types of music.
Diversity means everything to me. All I wanted to do as a kid was play different styles. For instance, my affinity for Hawaiian music started with my father, who played steel. At the ceremony, I expressed what I owe to him.
Dad had a combo, and practiced at our house near Indianapolis. He had a Danelectro bass. I played along with them through the bedroom wall. Once their bassist couldn’t show up, and I said, “Dad, I know all your stuff. I’ve been practicing with you guys.” I got my bass and made my debut.
You were among five guitarists given the Certified Guitar Player award by Chet Atkins. Tell me about your relationship.
I first met Chet briefly in London while on a 1973 RCA tour with Dottie West at Wembley Stadium. Years later, while playing for rockabilly/country star Bob Luman, he brought me in to play bass on an album that Johnny Cash produced, Alive and Well. I call that day “my lottery day.” That’s when my first songs were recorded.
I landed a recording contract soon after. The guitar player was Paul Yandell, Chet’s right-hand guy. He said, “Chet would love to hear you.” That led to Chet signing me to RCA in 1977 for my first session, the morning after Elvis died.
Chet put out three singles of mine. None of them did anything. One day he said, “You should go with another producer.” As soon as I went with producer Tom Collins, I had my first Top 10 hit, in 1979. This demonstrated Chet’s regard for me. He gave me the best career advice.
I continued touring with him, and he was like a father. He taught me so much about making records and life in general. I was humbled when Chet played with me the night I was inducted as a member of the Grand Ol’ Opry, in 1996. There’s no way I can measure what he meant to me. We were lifelong friends until he passed away in 2001.
Your collaborations with Glen Campbell form a prominent part of your legacy too.
As a kid, I was enthralled watching Glen’s TV show, The Goodtime Hour. My favorite segment was the impromptu part where players would sit around, pickin’ and playing. That show let me know this is what I want to do with my life. After I was in Nashville, he asked me if I’d record a duet on “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” I thought, 'He’ll do his part and then he’ll have me do mine later.'
When I got to the studio, Glen and I sang face to face, without overdubbing. It was daunting singing “Gentle on My Mind” at his memorial service.
You’ve composed hits for Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Don Williams. Which songwriters would you say influenced you?
I’d credit Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, along with Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Then there’s Dottie West. A big break came when I became bassist with Dottie’s band barely out of high school.
I’ve just posthumously written a song with her. I gained access to one of her songwriting notebooks from 1964. One idea was, “I just go on living, if you could call it that.” [Nashville songwriter] Bobby Tomberlin and I molded a song around that premise. It’s cool after all these years to write with one of my mentors.
Your 2016 album, All Over the Map, has an autobiographical flavor. Was that your intention?
The concept presented itself halfway through production. I’d say. “I don’t know where I’m going with this. It’s certainly all over the map.” It celebrates me and reflects on my years of traveling and exposure to many kinds of music that I love. I wrote “Mister Roy” in homage to my dad.
Ricky Skaggs plays on “Down Sawmill Road,” which details where my mother lived during childhood. It’s a simple finger-pickin’ thing with just my guitar and Ricky’s mandolin. Chet gave me a Gibson in the style of a [Gretsch] Country Gentleman, which I played on the track “CGP” with Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles.
I love Duane Eddy’s twang and tone. I always hoped we would come together. I finally thought, 'Just do it.' So I asked him, ”Would you help me finish a guitar piece I started and record it on my album?” He jumped right in. It became “Nashville Spy-Line.”
He played with those beautiful diving and swooping tones, low notes and trademark vibrato. Other notables on the record include Eric Johnson, Jack Pearson, Greg Martin and my son Ryan, who plays on “The Last Word.” It doesn’t get much better than this, playing with these guys.
It must be great that your family’s guitar tradition continues through your son.
Keep in mind, Ryan was 16 when he was nominated for a Grammy with me. How lucky am I to be in the studio hearing my son in my headphones playing those cool parts! He plays with great intonation and awareness. He’s gotten extensive experience playing with Gene Simmons, Lee Ann Rimes, Jewell and Chris Cornell.
Your 2015 uncredited recordings with Megadeth on their album Dystopia display your adaptability. How did they originate?
Dave Mustaine, who has become a great friend, called me and said, “I hear you play steel guitar. Would you play on our album, Dystopia?” I cut two songs with my doubleneck steel guitar. It was an honor and quite a challenge, taking me out of my wheelhouse.
Your cover of “Get Back,” from a 1995 compilation [Come Together: America Salutes the Beatles], reveals your love for classic rock. The video is pure frolic.
Brent Hedgecock directed it as a takeoff on black-and-white Beatles footage, with girls chasing the band. The old guy on the bench reading the paper was a cameo by Chet Atkins. Incidentally, check out my tribute video to Merle Haggard performing his “Working Man Blues” as part of an ad hoc band called Jed Zeppelin.
What are your future musical plans, and what’s up with your signature Gretsch Nashville Gentleman?
I’ve completed 14 tracks for an album consisting of new arrangements of my hits. I’ve three to finish. There’s no release timeline. Speaking of my signature Gretsch, I just wrote an Atkins fingerstyle piece, “The Nashville Gent,” and it’s based on the guitar.
As a child, I’d gaze at rows of Gretsches in our local music store. Occasionally the owner allowed me to play one. I only dreamed of owning a Gretsch, let alone having my name on one. This guitar took two years to make. I enlisted Ryan and Jeff Senn to help design it. We have unique features, including the 6120-size body with the longer scale neck, big medium-jumbo frets, a Tru-Arc bridge, TV Jones pickups and a push-pull tone knob that turns the pickup into single-coil.
You can get a variety of sounds. There’s the pure Gretsch-type sound. And with that single-coil conversion you get a different kind of twang, more of a Tele or Strat sound. It has the brass nut and Gotoh tuners.
What other guitars do you like to use?
I play some custom-made guitars: a Tele-style by Joe Glaser with a B-Bender, a Tele-style by Senn he calls the Pomona and a nylon-string classical electric by Kirk Sand that I take on the road. For acoustic, I play a Gibson-J-45 and a Gibson Hummingbird. I also take a couple of Signature Steve Wariner Takamines.
It’s been a long journey for you. What’s your end goal?
I just want to walk away satisfied that I played at the highest level I possibly could and feeling that Chet Atkins or Jerry Reed would have been proud of that. I also want to walk away satisfying the audience at my concerts. I want them to leave saying to each other, “Wow! I really loved that performance. It sounded just like the records we love.”