If '70s rock journalists threw Steve Forbert onto the "next Dylan" pile along with Springsteen and Prine and Elliott Murphy and Willie Nile, they should now be granted clemency. There was, of course, some reason.
Forbert, like Dylan, left the hinterlands for New York City, guitar in hand, harmonica hanging from his neck, and a cocksure grin on his boyish face. Even the straight-up wiry, unmanageable hair -- as if the owner had received an electric shock of Woody Guthrie -- seemed to be part of the folk-rock legacy. Each brought a distinctive voice: in Forbert's case, a kind of kicked-in-the-throat raspiness. Then there were the Dylanesque song titles, such as "Steve Forbert's Midsummer Night's Toast."
A touch of success followed. A late-night, half-drunken interview with Rolling Stone and a single, "Romeo's Tune," that reached No. 11. But record-company squabbles forced the singer-songwriter into a six-year period of near-invisibility, save for a cameo in Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," where he played the flower-toting boyfriend at clip's end.
If Steve Forbert ever went away, he has now returned. Any Old Time, his latest release, is a tribute to country music and Jimmie Rodgers, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and fellow native of Meridian, Mississippi. The album was nominated for a Grammy; perhaps as a bitter irony, the first Forbert record not self-penned is the one to gain this recognition.
"I have to say it's a pleasant surprise all around," Forbert says. "I did this thing almost out of a feeling of obligation. I grew up with some of his relatives. I was taught guitar by one of his cousins. I had recorded some of his songs before, but when I focused on this, I was even more impressed."
Forbert tours by himself nowadays, guitar and harmonica keeping him company. He performs an energetic mix of his own classics, Rodgers tunes, and material from an album to be released in April. He stops at local record stores when he has the time, and he tries not to leave his lane when an unexpected lyric comes to him as he drives. He keeps to the road, a folk-rock troubadour in the tradition of Rodgers and Guthrie and, yes, even Dylan, reaching out to touch the timeless.