An otherwise intelligent acquaintance of mine recently hooked a thumb over his shoulder at a nearby poster advertising the upcoming Tucson performance of singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. This fellow, in a manner most waggish, asked, "He still around?"
The truth is, Forbert never went away.
It's possible, however, that the music-industry hoopla accompanying Forbert's initial success in the late 1970s has made his long-running and more-than-respectable career since then seem a little underwhelming. With the appearance of his 1978 debut album, Alive on Arrival, Forbert was just one of many artists to be proclaimed "the new Dylan." Such burdensome buzz followed him for a while, especially when he was in the eye of the storm a year later with the bona fide hit song "Romeo's Tune."
By the time his third album, Little Stevie Orbit, was released, snotty music-bizzers were citing Forbert's unrealized potential, simply because he wasn't making pop hits and earning money for fat-cat executives.
But this is a guy, let's remember, who's made 14 good-to-great studio albums (not to forget several live recordings) and who's carved out a reputation as a talented, reliable artist adept at folk, country, rock, blues and R&B. From an artistic point of view, Forbert simply got better and better over the years, especially during his first comeback, with the albums Streets of This Town (1988) and The American in Me (1992). His most recent disc, last year's heartache-stricken Over With You, ranks among his best.
Now it's 35 years since Forbert's debut, and his first two albums, Alive on Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim, were released last week as a two-CD package. A tour promoting it brings Forbert to Tucson for a solo acoustic performance Friday, April 5, under the stars in the courtyard at Plaza Palomino. It's part of the Rhythm & Roots concert series. He'll perform Alive on Arrival in its entirety, and then complete the concert with tunes from throughout his career. But first, there's a Japanese tour.
Reached on the phone before embarking for Asia, Forbert recalled the heady days of his early career.
Born in Meridian, Miss., he moved to New York City at 21. He has mixed feelings about the adulation he received there during his early 20s.
"I'm really a bit of a schizophrenic in relation to that fame. Part of me really didn't like being so recognizable all over the place. You're always suspicious of that kind of attention, and I don't like the pressure. You can't go somewhere and just have lunch. People feel like they just instantly know you. They feel like they have an impression of what you are like, and in many ways it's just like a job."
But that fame gave him the opportunities to make music and establish himself as an artist, and it gave him attention that furthered his career, even when he was dropped by his record label.
"Of course, if there wasn't that level of interest in those records, I wouldn't be able to do the things I have done, or to enjoy all the sort of stuff I have experienced. The part of me that wants a real career should be able to accept the fame things and should be happy with what I've got now. I realize that I have been doing what I like doing."
While still in Mississippi, Forbert, like many kids, played as a teenager in many a local band. He'd discovered in himself an aptitude for music at an early age.
"It goes way back. I just had an intuitive thing about songs when I was really young. I could run them through my head from start to finish after I heard them just a couple of times. And then, when the Byrds hit with 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' I just went over the edge. That was when the merry-go-round stopped for me, and I got on it."
Forbert is stymied when asked to compare that portrait of a budding artist with the journeyman musician he has become.
"That's an almost impossible question to answer. I'm 58, and I have changed a great deal. But I am still the same person, which I suppose applies to anybody. I feel really engaged and involved in life, but it wasn't like that wasn't the case then.
"I have three kids now, and anybody is gonna go through changes. We've been through the credit wars, the great recession, the digital revolution. I couldn't describe to you how that has changed me, my work and society."
The nature of singer-songwriters is that they create material that is personal, sincere and sometimes autobiographical. But few listeners in the 21st century are naive enough to assume that whenever an artist, say Steve Forbert, sings in the first person, it's about him.
Forbert has often written from a personal point of view, although he leaves the question of which songs are autobiographical open to the interpretation of the listener.
"That's part of the nature of songwriting and being a singer. A lot of that really just goes with the territory. A lot of my life is indeed in it. Some of the songs on Over With You, such as the title song, I would definitely say it reflects events in my life. And I wouldn't want to go through that again."
Some of Forbert's music directly reflects his life, some draws from general storytelling and some of it results from using personal experiences as the basis for a broader mythology. Either way, he hopes it has resonance for the listener.
"A lot of the lyrics are written in such a way that they can be more anonymous. Then you add a melody and make the song accessible, and it has echoes that are more there for the listener. A lot of me comes through, but it's made to reflect a lot of the listener, too. I don't think in terms of these being directly a slice of my life in most of these songs. That's one of the reasons I love this folk-singing thing."