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.
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