You can go home again.
Steve Azar launched a radio phenomenon with I Don't Have to Be Me ('Til Monday) and a video sensation with Waitin' on Joe. He is creating music for movies and narrating a documentary. But the busier and bigger he gets, the more his thoughts have turned homeward to his Mississippi Delta roots.
For the longest time, I felt like I couldn't go home, says the singer-songwriter. I think so many of us are in a hurry to leave where we're from. I know I was in a hurry. When I got to Nashville, everything about home started oozing out of me. Then I finally accepted it. Now I know it's OK to go home. I feel that at this point in my life, I have finally found myself.
This record is a fusion, I guess, of my life in Nashville and the music that has influenced me here, with my years in the Delta and all my influences from there. The sounds are a combination of all that.
The record in question is Indianola, the first album to not only capture his sonic influences, but the first to showcase his multi-faceted talent as a songwriter, performer and producer. Paced by its exciting, rocking single You Don't Know a Thing, the CD spans moods from the philosophical meditation Empty Spaces to the funky Bluestune. There are gripping story songs like River's Workin' and The Coach, Southern rockers such as Flatlands and lyrics inspired by his struggles such as I Won't Let You Lead Me Down and What's Wrong with Right Now.
Home seethes with Delta heat. Indianola also evokes the atmosphere of his homeland. The innovative audio textures of Still Tryin' to Find My Way Around and Crowded make them two of the most listenable tracks he has ever recorded. And You're My Life is as beautifully straight forward, extravagantly warm and deeply sincere a love song as you're likely to hear. Rounding out the collection are two hidden tracks that were recorded by Steve Azar at home in simple acoustic settings -- Mississippi Minute and Highway 61, both additional visions of his roots.
His home studio was the genesis of most of the sounds on Indianola. He and his band, plus guests such as Radney Foster, A.J. Masters and Jo-El Sonnier created layers of sound there. Azar then took the tapes to a Music Row studio for further layering, percussion and polish. This is the first time he has produced his own record, and the result is stunning.
We've been playing some of these songs live for a long time, he says. I knew how they were supposed to sound, how I wanted them to sound, how they could sound. From the beginning, I was recording my songs at home and then taking them into another studio. So I've always been thinking that I was going to produce. I want to start making my own music. It just makes more sense to me. I had to 'do my thing.'
I needed to do this, needed to know where I stand. After all this time, after everything I've seen and heard, after all the shows, after all the producers, it was time for me to suck it up and go in the direction I have. We have a great band on the road. These guys 'get' me. But nobody would let them be on my records before. So finally I realized I had to take charge and do this.
In addition to writing or co-writing every song on Indianola and engineering and producing the collection, Steve Azar plays slide guitar, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar at various places on the project. The album is the latest step in a life that has always been marked by artistic forward progress.
The next-to-youngest in a family of five children, Steve Azar had music in him from an early age. Home was little Greenville, Mississippi, where his father owned the state's first liquor store.
I have been writing songs since I was 10 years old, he recalls. Bluesmen like Eugene Powell and Sam Chapman used to sing and play behind my dad's liquor store. I loved what they sounded like. I was hooked.
I started playing guitar because of writing songs. That was the beginning of it all. When I was 14 years old, I had four songs that I felt like were pretty good. So my mom and dad took me to Nashville and paid for a studio to record them. That sowed the seed.
The teenager's early tunes were strong enough for Buddy Killen and Donna Hilley of Tree Publishing to encourage him. One of the songs, Living Life to its Fullest, was performed by the young composer on Danny Thomas's national telethon for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. While still in high school, he made two more trips to Music Row. Azar was chomping at the bit to make music full time -- his parents insisted he go to college. But life at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi rapidly became one gig after another for the Steve Azar Band.
By the time he graduated with a business-management degree, he was playing 200 shows a year and touring with two 28-foot trucks and 10 men on the payroll. Azar was a regional headliner who played the Delta's biggest clubs and festivals, including the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. Mississippi native Faith Hill remembers being at his shows. Golf champ Jim Gallagher was another fan. He invited Azar to co-host Inside the PGA on ESPN. Later, lifelong sports enthusiast Azar sang a duet with Green Bay Packers MVP Brett Favre on the album NFL Country. During his travels, he also got to know fellow Delta music makers like Conway Twitty and Charley Pride, as well as many blues legends.
I was at this blues festival. I'll never forget it was hot, 105 degrees. I'd just got off stage from playing, and Albert King walked up to me. He goes, 'Hey, you got it. Where ya going with it?' I said, 'I'm going to Nashville.' And he said, 'Oh, the Devil goes to Nashville.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I see it: Boy, you are going to have one hard time. Yours is going to be a long, long, long journey.' I said, 'No, I'll get it done in a year.' And I'll be dogged if he wasn't right.
Steve Azar moved to Nashville in 1991. By the end of his second day in Music City, he was offered three song-publishing contracts. Since then, he has written for four companies. Each time, he insisted that his songs not be played for stars to record. He wanted to save them for the records he was convinced he was gong to make, himself. Five years dragged by. Finally, he surfaced on River North Records. Someday,Thunderbird ,I Never Stopped Lovin' You ,Nights Like This and Heartbreak Town, received modest radio airplay in 1996. But today he disowns the CD entirely.
By then, he'd closed his thriving live-performance career down. Steve Azar was financially successful, but artistically unfulfilled.
I gave it up because I wanted to become a better songwriter, he explains. And that's why I moved to Nashville. I still think that was the best thing in the world for me to do. . And I'm still learning.
His first real album became 2001's Waitin' on Joe. Its breakout single I Don't Have to Be Me ('Til Monday) has been played almost three million times on the radio to date. Azar made headlines again when Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman agreed to guest star in the 2002 video for Waitin' on Joe.
Steve Azar worked to promote his hits like he'd never worked before. But as a result, he developed vocal problems in 2003 and underwent surgery in 2004. He began work on what became Indianola last year, but scrapped the sessions that were recorded with another producer when he realized his home recordings had more soul and passion.
He tested the tunes at events like Mississippi Rising, a benefit event at Ole Miss for the victims of Hurricane Katrina last year. He shared the stage with Morgan Freeeman, plus Sela Ward, Samuel L. Jackson, The Mississippi Mass Choir, Faith Hill, Ray Romano, Jason Alexander and Lance Bass, several of whom encouraged Azar in his new musical direction.
Once Indianola is on the market, Steve Azar will use some of its music as well as freshly composed songs in Second Crossing: Mississippi's Landmark Bridge, a documentary film he is narrating. Next comes Delta Storms, a feature film whose soundtrack will be supervised by Azar.
This is going to be an exciting year, he says. I think this is a good time for me. I have never slept so soundly in my life, so I know I'm at peace, musically. I already have some believers on my side. And that's good, because I think this is the best record I have ever made.
--- from the official Steve Azar website