Steve Forbert was reading an article in Rolling Stone recently about a man and a woman made Internet famous by their artistry on the fast-twitch social video app Vine. Between them, they collected more than 8 million followers, fans anxiously awaiting the next snippet of creativity.
“That’s a hell of a challenge, to make everyone laugh in six seconds,” Forbert said.
The venn-diagram circles of time, art and fame intersect interestingly these days. It takes a particular talent to stand out in short-attention-span theater. It’s equally difficult to be consistently good over decades.
Forbert, who plays the Palms in Winters on Friday, had a hit long time ago. “Jackrabbit Slim,” his second album, was released in 1979. “Romeo’s Tune,” a jaunty single about looking for a little love, skipped up to No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
He had a story to go with his hit. He was a kid with a guitar and harmonica from Meridian, Miss., who headed to New York and found room playing folk rock alongside the punks at CBGB’s. The swagger in his stance on the cover of “Jackrabbit Slim” hints at how he pulled that off. The publicity machine tagged him a “new Dylan,” because in those days it tagged anyone who could work a rhyme as a new Dylan. Forbert was on the edge of stardom.
Thirty-five years later, he picked up the phone at his home in Nashville on the first ring. His manager emailed the number and said Forbert was free any day after 11 a.m. local time. Forbert was enjoying some time off after a European tour followed immediately by an East Coast tour. It was a lot of tour, even for a guy who’s been driving himself around the country for decades. After it was suggested that driving is a good way to see the country, Forbert laughed.
“Oh, I’ve seen the country,” he said.
Stardom never quite happened. After “Jackrabbit Slim,” his next two albums didn’t break. Then he sank into a six-year jam of record-company-and-management hassles, some certainly of his own making. By the time he re-emerged in 1988 with “Streets of This Town,” produced by the E Street Band’s Garry W. Tallent, the window for fame and outrageous fortune had closed.
What Forbert was left with he turned into an enviable career, one marked not by sidewalk stars or halls of fame (though he’s in Mississippi’s), but by dozens of smart songs and thousands of satisfied customers.
“I haven’t had the misfortune of having an extremely lucrative record deal all these years,” Forbert said.
He admitted to a little facetiousness packed into that statement, but there’s some truth to it, too. “When someone’s offering you $2 million per album, you might put one out a little more often than we do,” he said.
Instead, he’s been able to put out records when records were ready. He’s been able to focus on songs he knows he’ll still be able to play proudly years down the road. There’s no pressure to chase trends. He lasted long enough that the perfect genre – American – grew up around him.
His most recent record, 2012’s “Over With You,” was a moving, and sparse collection of songs about love coming and going. It’s the kind of record, he said, when it was released, that takes a lifetime of experience to write. And a few of the songs, the title track being one, you’d only want to live once.
He’s used the Internet to keep in touch with his fans, to release a number of albums and songs, but he has no idea how he’d use it to light a digital fire under his career. Maybe the fragmentation of the industry has cost him some label opportunities. He doesn’t sound too worried about it either way.
Later this year, he’ll do a few shows with his band and they’ll play “Jackrabbit Slim” in its entirety, which isn’t much work. He plays a lot of it still today. He’ll keep right on touring. And creating.
A few years ago, he put together a museum exhibit called “Highway of Sight.” It was a collection of photos he took on tour using a cellphone. You can find a lot of them on his Instagram page. They’re beautiful, tightly framed moments of classic Americana: old signs, empty bottles, cars that aren’t made anymore. Each photo looks like the start of another song.
“I’m still taking a few of them,” Forbert said. Recently he saw an imitation Statue of Liberty in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
Other moments turn into songs. In 2010, on tour in Europe, he visited John Lennon’s childhood home. He stood in the room where Lennon and Paul McCartney first harmonized and tried to imagine what would have been going through Lennon’s head the night he and McCartney first met.
Earlier this month, Forbert released online the song he came up with and gave it a title his own long and celebrated career could comfortably wear: “You’d See the Things That I See.”