Steve Forbert Releases New Album Early Morning Rain

Collection features 11 covers of singer-songwriter’s favorite tunes by Gordon Lightfoot, Elton John, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen and other artists

While I’ve heard of Steve Forbert before, included one of his songs in my previous Best of What’s New installment and some fellow music bloggers I follow have covered him, I still feel I know next to nothing about this longtime American singer-songwriter. But here’s one thing I know for sure: I dig Early Morning Rain, Forbert’s first covers album in a 40-plus-year career, which came out today.

Forbert was born on December 13, 1954 in Meridian, Miss. He started writing songs as a 17-year-old and moved to New York City in 1976. He became a street performer in Greenwich Village and soon started playing CBGB and other local clubs. In 1978, Forbert got a record contract with Nemperor and later that year released his debut album Alive on Arrival. The record was well-received, and some critics were quick to call him “the new Dylan,” a label Forbert dismissed as a cliche.

His sophomore album Jackrabbit Slim from 1979 included Romeo’s Tune, which also was released separately as a single and became what essentially has been his only hit to date. In the U.S., the tune climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also charted in other countries, including Canada where it peaked at no. 8, as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I don’t recall hearing the song on the radio in Germany back then.

Steve Forbert

Forbert’s songs have been covered by a wide range of artists, including Keith Urban, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart and John Popper. In 2004, his album Any Old Time, a tribute to Jimmy Rodgers, was nominated for a Grammy in the category of “Best Traditional Folk.” In 2006, Forbert was inducted into the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, and just earlier this year, he received a 2020 Governor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Music from that state. But it seems to me all this recognition hasn’t translated much into chart or other commercial success for Forbert.

Early Morning Rain is Forbert’s 21st studio album. The tracks represent what he calls 11 of his favorite folk-rock songs. Artists he covers include Gordon Lightfoot, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Ray Davies – quite an interesting group. Forbert told American Songwriter he made his choices from an initial list of 150 tracks. So why does this album speak to me? To start with, I love the warm sound. I also like how Forbert approached the songs and made them his own. While his voice is distinct and certainly not exactly opera quality, I think it greatly matches the song arrangements.

Let’s get to some music. Since on YouTube you currently cannot access clips unless you’re a premium subscriber, following are links to the album on Soundcloud and Spotify. Hope that at least one of these platforms will work for readers. If you have Apple Music, you also can get it there.

While I think it’s worthwhile listening to the entire album, I’d like to call out some of the tunes. The opener and title track Early Morning Rain was written by Gordon Lightfoot. It appeared on his debut album Lightfoot! from January 1966. The beautiful steel guitar fill-ins that according to the credits listed in this review by Americana Highways were provided by Marc Muller, particularly stand out to me in this tune.

Your Song is one of my favorite Elton John tunes. Composed by John with lyrics by longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the track first appeared on John’s sophomore eponymous studio album released in April 1970. The backing vocals in Forbert’s version were provided by New Jersey singer-songwriter Emily Grove.

Pretty much all of the tunes on the album are on the quieter side. One exception is Supersonic Rocketship. Interestingly, Forbert’s take sounds more rock-oriented than the relatively mellow original by The Kinks. Written by Ray Davies, the track was included on the band’s 11th studio album Everybody’s in Show-Biz, which appeared in August 1972. Again, Grove features on backing vocals and nicely blends with Forbert.

Someday Soon is a country & western song by Ian Tyson written in 1964. The Canadian singer-songwriter recorded with his wife Sylvia Tyson as part of their duo Ian & Sylvia. It appeared on their third studio album Northern Journey. For this cover, Forbert is supported on backing vocals by Anthony Crawford, a singer-songwriter from Birmingham, Ala.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, a song I’ve dug for many years. Suzanne was first published as a poem in 1966 before it was recorded as a song by Judy Collins later that year. Cohen included it on his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen from December 1967. It also appeared separately as the lead single to that record.

In addition to Muller, Grove and Crawford, I like to acknowledge the other musicians listed in the credits: George Naha (electric guitar), Rob Clores (keyboards), Aaron Comess (drums), and John Conte and Richard Hammond (both bass). The album was produced, mixed and engineered by Steve Greenwell. Based on AllMusic, Greenwell also produced Forbert’s previous albums The Magic Tree (2018) and Compromised (2015).

“I’ve never done a cover record, and after 40 years, that’s a lot of pent up thinking,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “The point was to be able to really make a contribution. It’s not that much different from making an album of my own material. I wanted to pick things that hopefully fit like a glove…I do have a style and so like I’m presenting my style instead of playing out my heart and soul with original material.”

Given the large initial list of songs, Forbert also didn’t rule out the possibility of a sequel. Some of the tunes he mentioned in this context include Dance the Night Away (Cream), I Should Have Known Better (The Beatles), North Country Blues (Bob Dylan), Are You Lonesome Tonight (Elvis Presley) and Lather (Jefferson Airplane). As a fan, I’m delighted to see a Beatles tune, but I’d be even more curious to hear Forbert’s take on Dance the Night Away.

I realize there is a certain degree of irony that Forbert’s first record I explored more closely and decided to write about is a covers album. But I suppose you got to start somewhere, and Early Morning Rain is a new album I happened to know was coming out today. Plus, I’m definitely encouraged and certainly curious to listen to more of Fobert’s music.

Sources: Wikipedia; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Americana Highways; AllMusic; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This is the fifth installment of Best of What’s New. I’m starting to think this may become a weekly feature, which would make me happy and frankly is something I had not expected when I introduced it five weeks ago. Unlike the previous times, this installment mostly features new releases by well-established artists from Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples. Perhaps not surprisingly, four of the songs were released because of COVID-19, though three were written pre-pandemic. In one case, the lyrics were slightly tweaked, so the tune better fits the current situation. Let’s get to it!

Bob Dylan/I Contain Multitudes

What’s up with Robert Zimmerman? Last Friday, he released his second new song in three weeks. I Contain Multitudes, which took its title from the Walt Whitman poem Song of Myself, comes on the heels of the 17-minute Murder Most Foul centering on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While as a more casual Dylan listener, I would not dare to try and figure out what’s going on in his head, releasing a song about a traumatic event in 1963, followed by a tune with cheerful lines like The flowers are dyin’ like all things do or I sleep with life and death in the same bed doesn’t strike me as a coincidence during a global pandemic. It is also likely to fuel hope among Dylan fans that a new album may be in the making, though in perhaps typical fashion Mr. Zimmerman hasn’t made any comments in this regard.

Alicia Keys/Good Job

Earlier this week, I had caught a CNN announcement that Alicia Keys was going to debut a new song on the cable news channel last night. And she did: Good Job. While Keys recorded the powerful ballad last year for her next album ALICIA, the lyrics are a beautiful fit to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all folks who look after the sick and keep the country going during the pandemic, oftentimes by risking their own lives. The tune was co-written by Keys, her husband and producer Swizz Beatz, singer-songwriter The-Dream and songwriter, composer and producer Avery Chambliss. “Whether you’re on the frontlines at the hospitals, balancing work, family and homeschool teaching, delivering mail, packages, or food, or facing other personal difficulties because of COVID-19, I feel you. You are seen, loved and deeply appreciated,” said Keys. While I don’t necessarily dig each and every song by Keys, I believe she has an incredible voice and is a powerful performer. She also comes across as very genuine to me.

The Rolling Stones/Living in a Ghost Town

I’d like to give a shoutout to Hanspostcard who first brought this new tune by The Rolling Stones to my attention yesterday on his Slicethelife blog. Similar to Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger wrote Living in a Ghost Town prior to COVID-19. As reported by Rolling Stone, it’s the band’s first new original tune since their 2012 compilation GRRR!, which featured two new tracks, Doom and Gloom and One More Shot. To make it a better fit for the current situation, Jagger had to tweak some of the lyrics. The Rolling Stone story quoted him from an interview with Apple Music: “Keith Richards and I both had the idea that we should release it,” he said. “But I said, ‘Well I’ve got to rewrite it.’ Some of it is not going to work and some of it was a bit weird and a bit too dark. So I slightly rewrote it. I didn’t have to rewrite very much, to be honest. It’s very much how I originally did it.” The Rolling Stone piece also included this quote by Richards: “We’ve got another five or six tracks and there’s a lot of sort of soul feel about it for some reason without anybody intending to,” Richards said. “Obviously right now we’ve got nothing else to do but write some more songs, right?” Could this finally be a new Stones album, which has been rumored for some time?

Cowboy Junkies/Misery

I think the only time I had heard of this Canadian band, which Wikipedia classifies as alternative country and folk rock, was in the late ’80s – probably in connection with their sophomore album The Trinity Session from November 1988, which looks like their most successful release. It included a cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, which became their highest-charting single the U.S., peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Well, it turns out Cowboy Junkies are still active, and on March 30, 2020, they released their latest album Ghosts. Three of their founding members, Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar, ukulele) and Peter Timmins (drums, percussion) – are siblings, and the album’s eight tracks are all related to the death of their mother Barbara, who passed away in 2018. The fourth member, Alan Anton (bass, keyboards), has also been part of the band since its formation in Toronto in 1985. I’ve listened to some of the album’s songs and like what I’ve heard so far. Here is Misery.

Ron Sexsmith/Dig Nation

Ron Sexsmith, a singer-songwriter from St. Catharines, Canada, is an artist I had not heard of before. According to Wikipedia, he has been a performing musician since 1978 and began releasing his own music in 1985. To date, he has issued 16 studio albums, the most recent of which is Hermitage that came out on April 17. Here’s Dig Nation. Really like the warm sound of that tune. And it’s quite catchy, too. Check it out!

Mavis Staples/All In It Together

Mavis Staples, who started her career in 1950 at the age of 11 as part of her family band The Staple Singers, needs no lengthy introduction. Since 1969, she has also performed as a solo artist and has released 14 solo albums to date. The most recent one, We Get By, came out in May 2019. The single All In It Together, which was released on April 2, 2020, is a collaboration with singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy who is best known as the vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. “The song speaks to what we’re going through now – everyone is in this together, whether you like it or not,” Staples said in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what race or sex you are, where you live…it can still touch you…We will get through this but, we’re going to have to do it together. If this song is able to bring any happiness or relief to anyone out there in even the smallest way, I wanted to make sure that I helped to do that.” According to Staples’ website, proceeds from the song will be donated to My Block, My Hood, My City – a Chicago organization ensuring seniors have access to the essentials needed to fight COVID-19. Staples and Tweedy’s vocals nicely blend in this blues-oriented rock tune. I also like Tweedy’s slide guitar work.

Steve Forbert/Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues

Here’s another great new tune by a long-time artist I mostly know by name, and this needs to change: Steve Forbert. Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues is the lead single from Forbet’s covers album Early Morning Rain, which is set to come out next Friday, May 1. “I wish I could release this record as a magic wand, in order to renew people’s appreciation for the fine craftsmanship these songs represent,” Forbert writes on his website. “Early Morning Rain contains 11 of my favorites, with only one written later than 1973.” Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues was written by Danny O’Keefe who also first recorded the song in 1967 but did not release it at the time. Instead, it was a band named The Bards who first put out the tune in 1968 as a b-side to a single. O’Keefe first included the song on his eponymous debut album from 1970. A re-recorded version was released as a single in August 1972 and became his best-known song. “I think ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues’ will be really good to put out there right now,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “I’ve always had a kinship with this song.”

Jeff Beck & Johnny Depp/Isolation

While multi-talent Johnny Depp certainly is not a newcomer to music and has played with the likes of Joe Perry and Alice Cooper, teaming up with guitar legend Jeff Beck is intriguing. The first outcome of their collaboration is a great cover of the John Lennon tune Isolation, which appeared last Friday, April 16. Lennon included the song on his first official solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band from December 1970. According to a statement on Beck’s website, The musical soulmates have been working behind-the-scenes for the past few several years on new music. “Isolation” finds Beck in classic form on guitar with Depp on vocals, joined by long-time Beck collaborators Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Rhonda Smith on bass…“Johnny and I have been working on music together for a while now and we recorded this track during our time in the studio last year. We weren’t expecting to release it so soon but given all the hard days and true ‘isolation’ that people are going through in these challenging times, we decided now might be the right time to let you all hear it,” says Beck. “You’ll be hearing more from Johnny and me in a little while but until then we hope you find some comfort and solidarity in our take on this Lennon classic.” Johnny Depp adds, “…Lennon’s poetry – ‘We’re afraid of everyone. Afraid of the Sun!’ – seemed to Jeff and me especially profound right now, this song about isolation, fear, and existential risks to our world. So we wanted to give it to you, and hope it helps you make sense of the moment or just helps you pass the time as we endure isolation together.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Mavis Staples website; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Jeff Beck website; YouTube