Steve Azar

by Shawna Ortega

Golf Digest ranked him the 5th best golfer among musicians, with a ridiculous handicap of .9 (scratch). He hangs out with the likes of Darius Rucker and Bob Seger, and legendary Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegun prophesied that he would be a great country singer, even when the singer himself didn't think he had "it."

But Steve Azar has been proving Ahmet right for years. He bleeds delta blues. It is what he grew up with, what he sleeps, eats and breathes. His music is as honest as it gets; credit the idealist in Azar who feels that to sing it, you have to write it, or risk losing the quality that makes it real. And his logic resonates.

A cliché-hating unapologetic Tootsie Roll fanatic who can call Morgan Freeman a fan, Steve's career is on rapid ascent, and he's soaking up the "Sunshine."
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): Let's talk about "Waitin' On Joe." I don't know whether to be mad at you or congratulate you, because that song made me cry. And I hate to cry.

Steve Azar: (laughs) Well, the video was really what set that song apart. Having Morgan Freeman in it was a gift. But what was great about that song was I learned a lot about songwriting right then. I've been writing songs since I was 11. And a lot of them that we don't ever need to talk about, it was part of the journey. (laughs) So it's interesting, when I wrote "Waitin' On Joe," it wasn't a song. The verses were three separate verses. I was really sort of poking fun at the beginning. Then I started thinking about what I was waiting on, and how I grew up in a town that flourished, between the farming and the river, it survived and it died and it lived and breathed from the water.

And I had one particular friend whose dad spent his whole life on the river, and it really consumed him. He was never at ease at home when he was there. It's almost like the water had just taken over his soul. As kids we didn't see it. But as an adult I can look back and say that he was never comfortable on dry land. And he couldn't settle in.

And then I had an uncle who passed away. He would have been governor of Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was this great man who cared about people, and he had a horrible battle with cancer. So I used a train analogy to be the cancer. So there was a lot going on in my head. And then one day this chorus came, and it just glued it together.

Songfacts: How did Morgan Freeman get involved?

Steve: One of those things where if you ask, the worse thing they can say is "no." You never know. He had moved back to Mississippi. My mom grew up on Highway 61 in a grocery store, on top of it. And my cousin's got this famous bar-b-cue place called Abe's Bar-B-Q that Paul Simon and Elvis Costello and Robert Plant, you name 'em, they've been there. My cousin's bar-b-q place sits right down the street from where my mom grew up on Highway 61 and the 49 split. When people talk about the crossroads and all that, well, it crossroads in there. It crossroads in a lot of places in a lot of people's minds, in the history and the lure of the delta. But with that said, he had moved back to a town that was back in Charleston, Mississippi, that was just down the street. And we just called. Morgan heard the song and he goes, "You know what? This song matters. I'll not only do the narrative, I'll be in the video." And it was just a wonderful gift.

I was on the same label that Shania was, and they had spent gobs of money on her video at the time, and we had spent pennies on the dollar compared to that, and we had Morgan in it. (laughs) He didn't even charge me anything.

Songfacts: "I Don't Have To Be Me 'Til Monday" was the follow-up to "Waitin' On Joe."

Steve: Well, actually, it was the first single. "Waitin' On Joe" was the follow-up. Because "Waitin' On Joe" was the reason "Monday" ever got heard.

But I gotta be honest with you; I'd gotten the idea for "Monday" from a roommate in college, who was my roommate the entire time. He was killin' it in the world. Really hard work. Started a business from scratch out of his garage and became very successful. But he was really stressed. He beat himself to the point of no return. And he comes to Nashville from Chicago on a Thursday night, and he says, "I just gotta get away." And we did. We did everything stupid like we did growing up. (laughs) We went bowling, we played golf, we played ping-pong, we played tennis, we played basketball – you name it, we did it. We were very sore, by the way, on Monday. When he had shown up, he looked 10 years older than he was, around his eyes, and everything. I noticed how tired he looked. And then when he left, he looked young again. And he goes, "Man, it's just great not to have to be myself." And so that stuck in my head.

There was a handful of songs that I wrote about that sentiment, just getting away and letting yourself get away from who you are. Most of 'em were junk. But I remember we were writing another song, my percussionist, RC Bannon and me, and we were stuck. I started singing, "I got me a brand new car waitin' in the driveway." And I didn't even know what it meant, you know? And then Jason (Young) goes, "That's something." So I said, "Okay, we'll chase it." Well, we originally called it "I'm Free." But then we went to eat, and when we came back I was eatin' Tootsie Rolls, and all of the sudden I just screamed out, "I don't have to be me 'til Monday!" And then they looked at me, and I said, "I apologize. I don't know what I was thinking."

And so for about four months nobody got it. Everybody was saying, "You mean you want to be yourself 'til Monday." So we went through this whole literal interpretation for a long time. We put the demo down, and then eventually I made the record, but it sat around Nashville with every record label that would listen. Some of them wouldn't even listen. And the interest was, "This does sound like a hit, but we're not sure." So I went through that, and like "Waitin' On Joe," I was waitin' on these labels, I was waiting on my life, I was waiting on a lot of things. That was borne from that. And it's interesting how one thing will lead to the other, and how they'll pick each other up. If it wasn't for "Monday," "Waitin' On Joe" would have never been released, and you and I wouldn't be talking about it. If it wasn't for "Waitin' On Joe," nobody would have ever heard "Monday." So it's interesting. I'm giving credit to Tootsie Rolls.

Songfacts: What goes around comes around. Let's talk about your new CD, Slide On Over Here. It's been in my truck's CD player for about the last 3 months.

Steve: You can't get it out? I apologize. Want me to send somebody in with a crowbar?

Songfacts: Don't even joke about it. That actually happened once! I had to send back my entire CD player because a CD got stuck. (laughing) It wasn't yours, though. Anyway, I'm trying to decide the best way to say this… Slide On Over Here… it's very… sexy.

Steve: Well, thank you. That's good. It's interesting that you'd say that. There is a mood about it. I spend a lot of time on production, and actually that, to me, is like painting. I can't paint at all, but it's the closest I'll ever come to getting to paint. When you write the song, it's one thing. But starting with layers of music and how you hear things is becoming one of the more enjoyable parts of anything that I do musically. You stumble into a sound of a record, I think, during a period in your life, and where you are. I came off the Bob Seger tour when that record started to take shape. It was so inspiring to come out every night and watch him sing "Turn The Page." I think that it set me into this mood where I was in my life personally, and all the stuff I was going through – a lot going on. A lot of decisions were made, and during that period I was writing a lot about it. I was in that emotional sort of mood, and the sound of it turned out to be, I guess, what you said. So that's good.

Songfacts: Oh, I wish my emotional sort of moods turned out that sexy. (laughs) And speaking of sexy… talk to me about "Sunshine."

Steve: Everybody goes, "Oh, you wrote that about your wife." And I didn't. Well, I'm sure I was thinking of her in the back of my mind somewhere. It's very dark in my area in the back of the tour bus. And I have jazz music going, I have the Food Network going, watch a little ESPN. It's very cold, and I get inspired back there. So a lot of times at sound check, I'll go out and just start writing a song, not really paying attention to it. I was in this mood, and I wasn't thinking about anything. Sort of where you're just out of your mind a little bit and you're not really focused on anything. And that line, "Your dark hair draped across my pillow, I finally got it right," I started messing with it a little. And me and Jason got to the back of the bus and we wrote it, and next thing you know we're at 2 or 3 shows later on the Seger tour and we're playing it. And how we played that the first time at sound check, the first time how it all started to come together after the song was written, it's how 90% of the record was written. That was basically it, except for a little bit of the drum pattern. Other than that, that's the same thing we heard the first night, the first time we played it. So it was really borne from a sound check and just a mood that I was in. And yeah, it's working out pretty good for us.

I've always felt like it was something that I'd like to own. I don't spend time listening to my music. Trust me. I listen to everything else after I'm done with it. I'm a fan of everybody else's music, and I'm grateful that I get to do it. But at the end of the day, "Waitin' On Joe" and "Sunshine" are songs that I'd like on my iPod. And I can honestly say that, because I know what it feels like when I play both of them, I know where I go in my heart and my soul, what it feels like to play it. And every time you do it, it's like it puts you in a trance. "Sunshine" seems to do that to people, and it's the first song since "Waitin' On Joe" that I've seen the impact of people wanting to tell us how they feel about it. It's funny, "Sunshine," I think is that point when it first happens, when you know you finally got it right. If you think about it, that's not too far away from not having it at all. It's the closest thing to it. When you realize you got it, you just didn't have it at all. So it's giving people hope that don't have it, and we're hearing that. Even the people who have been married 30 years, the stories are more like, "Oh my God, it made me fall in love all over again!" So we're getting these stories, and when you write something, you don't think about all that. Then you start getting feedback and going, "Well, this is great that it affects so many people."

Songfacts: "Sinkin' Or Swimmin' With You." Holy cow. That's the sexiest song off of this sexy CD.

Steve: I love that you said that! That's funny, my wife loves that song, too. I'd had the idea for that song for a while, just kind of sitting with it. There's that delta side of me – thinking about the river, and relationships, and how with a great relationship you're up and down, you're drowning and you're floating. It's all a process, and how you get through it and how you get better at a relationship. So Josh Kelley and I were outside of House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And it was Darius Rucker and all his boys, and Sony and the guys, and Mark and Dean, and we do their event every year. So I was outside the bus, and I started telling Josh about the song, and I started singing it, and he started singing it with me, and then we met back in Nashville and it was written. It was just one of those moments.

Songfacts: Where did the sound come from? That's got a Chris Isaak sound to me.

Steve: It's got that funky sort of rhythm-y delta… it's something that I grew up with. But Josh and I, it was a good marriage between us, as far as there's a song, and as far as grooves and rhythm. We had fun when we laid the demo down.

Songfacts: Okay. How about "Moo la Moo"?

Steve: Well, that's a song that was written years ago. I love playing those crazy guitar parts, I love all that. When I was out on tour with Bob, I said, "It's time for me to lighten up a little bit." Because he would go from "We've Got Tonight" and "Turn The Page" and all these great serious, heavy, wonderfully just move-the-soul songs, and then he'd go into "Old Time Rock & Roll" and "Betty Lou's Gettin' Out Tonight," and I'd watch the crowd light up. And I'd go, "I've forgotten to have fun." So I went back and pulled that song out, and I thought, We're gonna have fun. But I gotta be honest with you, it was written three years before. The economic times were great. And I had made a decision to put that on a record before things got bad. And I said three years before we put it on the record that I would never do that. Never. So we had issues at radio – we'd get this bi-polar reaction; they loved it, or they hated it. I couldn't argue with anybody that didn't like it, because I didn't like it, and I co-wrote it. (laughs) So it took me a long time, and I'd make the joke, "Listen, it took me three years to finally get into this song. We only have a few months, so if you could just hurry up and like it…" (laughs) But the truth was, it was a very thoughtful little reaction. I was building a record label. I was still hiring out parts and pieces. And then I'd realize I can't depend on those pieces. So the first song on this record was gonna be a victim.

Songfacts: I want to know who coined the phrase, "There's too much month at the end of the money."

Steve: There was another song years ago that was called that. Also, there was a book out years before that that was called that. It's a cliché. I'm not a cliché guy. I like to be the one that invents the clichés. It's harder for something to become a cliché than to get passed through Congress. (laughs) With that said, I have not been a fan of them and the songwriters that use them. I won't say who they are. A lot of them are very successful artists in the rock world and the country world. I just can't handle it. I don't love clichés.

So I was against this because it was a cliché to me, and something that you'd heard growing up, and then there was another song called that. So that was one of the reasons I wasn't into the song. And I never knew there was a song when I was writing it. And then I found out that there was, and one of my co-writers knew there was, but he goes, "Oh, it was a book title before that." That was, I think, another reason why I didn't want to do it. But then I said to myself, "It's not the title. The title's 'Moo la Moo,' just get over it." It's just a line in a song. Dave Ramsey's a big money guy that's got a syndicated radio show; he talks about too much month at the end of the money, people talk about that all the time. I saw it on the Allstate commercial, the actor that says, "Too much month at the end of the money?" There you go. But it did put me back out there. And the video had Gary Valentine from The King of Queens and also Paula Trickey from The O.C. We had such a great time with it, I think it showed us in a light of: Okay, Azar can actually have fun. But the bottom line is it served its purpose. And our song was nothing like anybody else's. I take pride in that. I like to take pride in the fact that my music doesn't sound like anybody else's, and that may be a bad thing, but…

Songfacts: I wouldn't think so. I think you need to be unique. "You Don't Know A Thing." I want to know what the seed for that song was.

Steve: I wrote that with Radney Foster. "You Don't Know A Thing" was our second effort. The last verse about the baby, that was a personal deal to Radney. Not as far as the child being sick, but… I won't go into detail, but it was definitely affected. And then with me having kids and then having to deal with some of that, I totally got that. And it sort of glued the song together. I remember when it was all said and done and we got through with it, we looked at each other and said, "Whoa!" I really love that song. As a songwriter you don't love a lot of your songs. You just appreciate 'em. But I love that song. And it was another step forward as a songwriter for me. And also being around Radney was educational to say the least. It was moving and spiritual and everything that goes with it. It was cool.

Songfacts: Is the song autobiographical?

Steve: I think in both of our lives, there's a sports thing: the win, the lose. It's biographical for anybody that's lived long enough to go through all of that. It becomes dead-on for all of us once you've reached a certain time period in your life. I think it eliminates nobody. We wrote a song that encapsulated anybody that's lived a certain amount of time in their life, and they will experience it, because everybody will.

Songfacts: Now, I've talked to Radney, and he was telling me about how his ex-wife had taken his son to France. That's what's going on here?

Steve: Yeah, what it's like to go through that. I remember seeing him tear up a little bit, and we talked about that. He didn't get to see his son sometimes, because his ex – she was in another country. And so that last verse was driven from that. And Radney, I remember, was driving the boat at that time of the song. It took us there, and it was important that he went there. So I got to experience what he felt. I felt like I understood all the emotions right there. It was a very moving moment. And as a songwriter you have to be able to share that. Even with a co-writer, you've got to be able to totally open up, because you're gonna share it with the world afterwards, with whoever will take the time to listen. So it's important that you're honest, and not afraid to talk about it and sing about it.

The St. Cecilia Foundation, founded in 2006 by Steve and his wife Gwen, focuses on providing aid, primarily in the Delta region and Nashville areas, for sick, abused, and disadvantaged children. Money is raised through Steve's singing and songwriting, and is their way of giving back to the community that has given them so much. Learn more about the Foundation at Steve Azar's Web Site

Songfacts: The only song on the Slide On Over Here album that was written by just Steve Azar is "Beautiful Regret." Are you more comfortable in a co-writing situation?

Steve: Well, I really enjoy it, and it's certain people that I enjoy doing it with. "Waitin' On Joe" I wrote alone, but it's fun to share something with somebody. I was an athlete growing up, and I loved sharing victories with teammates, instead of being alone. And I was a doubles player in tennis, had a great partner, we won some state titles. And it was great to be able to give him a big ole hug and high 5 when we won it. I've been a fan of team effort my whole life. And it takes a team in a lot of things you do in life. So I think that that's sort of built in me because of growing up being an athlete, playing all the sports, and depending on your teammates and them depending on you, and knowing what it's like to lose and win together. I just think that that's something that's been built in me and sort of cultivated ever since I was probably 7 years old playing sports.

Songfacts: Well, you know how insane it is to write that many songs in a year, and I've talked to several writers out there in Nashville, successful ones, and each and every one of them tells me that it is a daily struggle to find something to write about and then go into a room with some people and actually do it.

Steve: It was a struggle for me, and that's why I don't do it. That's why I quit doing it a lot of years ago. I didn't fit in that everyday-eat-your-Cap'n-Crunch-and-go-into-your-writing-room mode. I couldn't do it. I was stagnant. But, although it was very good to go through it, I realized that it didn't work for me. Because I didn't want to be a songwriter. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter that took his songs to the people and played 'em a la Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson and Bob Seger and Mellencamp and all these blues guys I grew up around: Eugene Powell, Sunny Boy Nelson, Little Milton and Albert King. I love the originality that these people had. I love knowing where they were from in their music, they were sort of geographical, and I feel like I've drawn from all of that, and obviously my delta roots is on all of my records.

Songfacts: So you went independent for a while?

Steve: It was funny, because I don't know why. I had this stick that I was headstrong about the way I had to write the songs. But I grew up playing, sometimes four hours of original music. I had two 30-foot trucks. I had 10 guys on the payroll by the time I was 23 years old. I mean, it was working. That's all that it ever was for me.

And coming to Nashville I was really learning how to become a songwriter. I was fortunate enough to be around world class songwriters who gravitated toward me immediately. And as much as I acted like I knew what I was doing, I was in boot camp, and I was just learning. I was really learning how to become a real writer. And I still feel like I have a ways to go, but I'm comfortable there now, meaning, you write 150 songs in a year, then 80 and 70 and 80 and 60, and it just makes you better, because you're doing it. And eventually you realize, well, don't waste your time, just write about stuff that really matters now. So instead of quantity you start working with quality. That's what Radney Foster, Roger Murrah, Mark Alan Springer, Rafe Van Hoy, and James House - I mean, the list goes on and on, where it becomes very comfortable. I feel more comfortable doing that than walking. It's always been my way out. Because you can't fight your way out, especially now; you can't swing, you can't take real punches, so you take your punches that way, and then nobody's standing up. And it feels good to be able to swing that way, to fire your blows that way. And they come in many forms. A lot of emotions. But it's an ongoing process. The great thing is you never get it totally, but you start feeling really comfortable.

Songfacts: What song off of Slide on Over Here, besides "Sunshine," really means a lot to you and pulled something from you when you wrote it?

Steve: There is a song, "Hard Road," I loved writing and recording that and doing the "ahhoo" and all that, and the process of putting that down. I think it was an important song for this record. "I'll Find Me," the first song on the record, as well, was written with Tony Colton and AJ Masters, a long-time co-writer buddy of mine. For Tony, it was the first song that he wrote after his wife's passing. He's an English songwriter who had Cream's hits, and who's a great lyricist. And he told me about losing the love of his life to a battle with cancer. He got really sick, and he wandered around like a ghost for two years before he could even find himself again. And so to be around and be in that experience, for him to invite me and AJ into that emotion, and to be able to be a part of that, it becomes a healing process when you can finally not only talk about it, but as a songwriter, write about it. I think with songwriters, it takes time. I think it should cultivate, and I think it should take you through all these turns and twists and pains and whatever it takes. In that case of that song, it was painful. You eliminate too much if you go right in. And songwriters, to me, are not capable of doing it. Because they don't want to write about it. They have to experience it. And then all of the sudden the way out is to write about it. The way to start digging yourself out of that hole. And so "I'll Find Me" was a very touching, moving deal for me to be a part of, and it was a gift to be a part of.

We spoke with this most sexiest of delta blues singers on March 16, 2010.

Get to know him yourself at SteveAzar.com

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Mary Etta Mcmillian from Belzoni, MississippiFinally got to see Steve Azar in concert in Jackson, MS. He is a great guy as well as fantastic singer! Good ole Delta fella!Love Sunshine and Hard Road!
  • Lucy from Middle EarthFabulous article! Thank you so much for shedding some light on Nashville's best kept secret. He should be a household name with all the talent he's got!
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