by Tom Redmond
An interview with Steve Wariner
A native of Noblesville, Indiana, Steve Wariner grew up in a household filled with music. His father Roy was a huge fan of the guitar playing of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. Steve began playing bass and singing in the family’s country band at the age of ten. By the time he was 17, he landed a job playing bass for Dottie West. After 3 years with Dottie West he joined Bob Luman’s band before being hired by Chet Atkins. What followed was a relationship that lasted almost 25 years and influenced Steve deeply. Working intimately with Chet Atkins on the road and in the studio in Nashville, Steve learned musical lessons as well as life lessons from “Mr. Guitar”. One of only four guitar players to be given the Certified Guitar Player (CGP) award by Chet Atkins, Steve talks about his career, his experiences with Chet and an exciting new Chet Atkins tribute project.
As an artist Steve has had numerous #1 singles over his 30 year career, including “I’m Already Taken”, “Some Fools Never Learn”, “All Roads Lead To You”, “Longneck Bottle”, “Two Teardrops”, “Where did I Go Wrong”, "Holes In The Floor Of Heaven", "What If I Said", “I Got Dreams” and "Tips Of My Fingers", among others.
He has earned numerous awards including 2 Grammys, the first in 1992 for Best Country Vocal Collaboration and the second in 2000 for Best Country Instrumental. Steve also has had 4 CMA awards, 16 BMI Country music awards, and the Song of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music for “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”. Steve contributes to a variety of charitable causes and has received awards for his work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and also was awarded the Minnie Pearl Humanitarian Award.
TR: I know you started your professional career as a bass player with Dottie West’s band. Did Chet see you play then? Just how did he come to hire you as a bass player?
The first time I really met Chet I was with Dottie West, and this is about 1973 or ’74. I think it would have been early ’74. It was in London when I first met him. We were on the RCA tour called “Cavalcade of Stars” which included artists like Danny Davis, Bobby Bare, Dottie West, and Jim Ed Brown. I was playing with Dottie West and Chet was on part of that tour performing, plus as you know he was the label head at RCA in Nashville. So the first time I met him I was playing bass with Dottie and I just met him briefly back stage. I’m sure he didn’t remember that, but many years later we talked about it.
I met him again a little later. It was when I was playing with a wonderful artist, Grand Ole Opry star Bob Luman, which I did for about 2 ½ years. During that period of time, Paul Yandell, Chet’s guitar accompanist was playing a lot of sessions in town – he was a pretty sought-after guitarist in the studio and, and Rip, the guitar player in Bob Luman’s band happened to be a friend of Paul’s.
So I would hang around with Paul. Like I said I knew him a little bit through my friend Rip. It wound up that Bob was doing an album to be produced by Johnny Cash and I happened to have written some songs Bob was doing on the album.
Johnny Cash was producing Bob’s “Alive and Well” album and as it turned out, I got to play some on the album, too. (Four of Steve’s songs were ultimately included on the album) So I wound up in the “House of Cash” studio with Johnny Cash.
Waylon Jennings came in and played a track. I was playing bass on that session which was awesome right there, you know – but Paul heard some of my songs and asked if I would get some of my songs to Chet.
He knew that I loved Chet, he knew of my passion for Chet’s playing and everything about him – I just worshipped Chet, you know, and Paul pretty much knew that. So Paul said: “Why don’t you get some of your songs together and I’ll take them to Chet?” Which of course Paul did, and I’m still so grateful.
So I made him a reel of some of my songs and it led to me and Chet meeting about the songs. Chet and I got together and had lunch one day and then I started hitting him up to produce me. I was still playing with Bob Luman, and Bob was going through some serious health problems and eventually at the age of 42, Bob passed away.
TR: You weren’t signed with a label then, were you?
SW: No, I wasn’t at this point. I was just playing in Bob Luman’s band – and of course, I was unemployed now, and Chet and I had already gone in the studio and he had cut some tracks of me. I hadn’t signed yet, but it was kind of a “let me see what you sound like on tape”.
And man, you want to talk about intimidation! You know, to go into Studio B with Chet Atkins, I mean studio B is a museum here now you know. It’s where Elvis, the Everly’s and everybody in the world recorded. Chet recorded and produced so many hits there.
I think Chet knew about my guitar playing – he had heard me playing and singing my songs, but I think mostly he was going by word of mouth – from Paul more than anything else. I think he just needed someone to fill in, to go on a fly date.
I look back on the time now and I think Chet realized I was unemployed and I was struggling and had nothing going. I was trying to get my recording career off the ground. He helped out. I think in a lot of ways that says a lot about Chet.
So I hopped on a plane and I started playing a few dates with Chet while we were trying to get my records going.
We had recorded a few tracks and put them out and nothing had happened and in the meantime, I was playing dates on the road with Chet and I was loving that, ‘cause all of a sudden, I found myself with the symphony dates, and we did small dates too, but I loved being there with Chet and Paul Yandell and George Lunn (Chet’s road manager), Tony Migliore and Randy Hauser. Randy was my roommate and one of my best friends. This was a great time in my life and a great experience for me.
TR: Now, tell me a little about your playing then, because obviously, you were playing bass with the band, and you had Paul playing guitar behind Chet. What was your guitar playing like then in the “bass playing” days?
SW: I was working on my guitar playing all the time, you know. I grew up with it. My dad played Travis style and Chet style and my dad had every Chet record there was so I was raised on Chet.
I mean, I knew – when they spoke the language of the songs, that even though I might have been on the fringes where I was listening in, I knew what they were talking about ‘cause I was raised on Chet’s music.
I loved it because every now and then Chet would just hand me his guitar and say, “hey, do so-and-so, do this song”, and I would set my bass down, and Paul would go over and play bass and I would play one of my new songs on Chet’s guitar – and he would feature me in the show. Sometimes we did “Frog Kissing” in the show and I would sing harmony with Chet. He would come over to me during the choruses and sing with me.
Honestly, it was so much fun, because Chet was always trying to make something new – he was always working on his show, putting more comedy into it, finding ways to make it better.
Someone would tell him a good joke and he would pull out his little pad and write it down. I mean, he was always working on his show and the jokes – when he heard a good joke, he would take out a pad and write it down and remember it for his show.
I think Chet was a great comedian, and it’s amazing considering his background. He said he was so introverted and shy growing up and it was later on as he got older he was able to come out more. He was really a great comedian, I think. He knew his audience so well. He was so dry with his humor, he could just crack people up.
Paul Yandell and I have talked about this a lot, we felt so blessed and so lucky. We had the best seat in the house every night. I was just a couple of feet from Chet every night. Half the show I didn’t even play – I just sat there. Half of it was either just the symphony and Chet or Chet by himself. I would sit in those symphony seats and watch and listen to Chet. I was sitting two feet from him, you know, right in front of the cellos. I just closed my eyes and listened.
And I was watching him closely ‘cause I knew that at some point, I was going to hopefully be making records and be on my own and though I certainly learned a lot from Dottie West and Bob Luman, I was really soaking it up with Chet.
He started using me in the studio with him and we were cutting things and I would play with him occasionally. Usually, when he had a singing part, like later on when he recorded “East Tennessee Christmas” he’d feature me on a little singing thing here and there and I loved that. I learned so much being around him in my sessions. But really, any time I was around him, I was watching him closely.
TR: Well, I wanted to ask you about the learning part because as you know, a lot of Chet fans are amateur guitarists and they would say, “Boy, I bet Steve got a lot of great up close guitar lessons just being around Chet” and I know that’s probably true, but I want to see if you can describe his influence on you in a couple of other ways too. Do you think Chet influenced your songwriting?
SW: Oh, no question about it, I certainly think he did. It wasn’t the type of songwriting influence like with Dottie West - she would talk about specifics – she helped me with my songwriting by actually saying, “Why don’t you say ‘this’ instead of ‘that,’”
She would go into a line I wrote and say, “Drop this line and say ‘this’ instead of ‘that”.
Chet would never do that. I would bring him songs and he would listen. And I could sort of tell what he was thinking just by the way he responded. If he really liked it I could tell, and if he didn’t like it I could tell that too. He really wouldn’t say he didn’t like it, but he was just not as enthusiastic. He was always so kind, you know.
So yes, I did learn about songwriting, and picking songs for sure I learned from him. Another thing I learned was the audience, learning your audience and what songs to do, and what not to do.
He also taught me not to be so self-indulgent with my music, especially when making a record.
I’d say something, “I really like this,” and he’d say, “Well you’re not the one buying the record. You need to make it for them, they’re the ones buying it. You’re not going to buy one.”
But most of all I learned from Chet about being kind to people. He was so kind to everybody.
I saw him many times standing on the street and talking to people, or in a store. They’d say “Hey, you’re Chet Atkins,” and he’d stay and talk to folks. He had no idea who they were, but he would take the time and listen. Not many icons do that – hang out with the average guy on the street.
So that always impressed me. They couldn’t believe they were standing there talking to him, talking about their garden or whatever. But he really cared, you know.
He could talk to folks on any level. I was with him one time with President Gerald Ford. He was just as comfortable talking to the average guy on the street as he was to the president. He was just incredible that way. He never forgot his roots. I think Chet always remembered those east Tennessee days growing up.
TR: That’s part of what people like about him isn’t it?
SW: It’s the charm of someone who remembers the hard times. He never forgot those days. My dad was a lot like that too. Chet certainly didn’t forget the depression days or his hard times or his roots, where he came from.
My family came from a similar place - that same Appalachian background and experience. I think he saw that in me, too. I think Chet understood that I was cut from the same cloth so to speak as he was in a lot of ways. It was a different generation, but I think we shared that common ground.