Over the phone, Steve Forbert comes across exactly as you'd expect him to: Uncommonly affable, decidedly soft-spoken, unmistakably Southern, and unabashedly down-to-earth. After all, that's the overall impression he's conveyed through his music for the better part of the last 35 years or so, ever since his debut album Alive on Arrival offered an auspicious introduction and his sophomore set Jackrabbit Slim yielded his signature song, "Romeo's Tune." It was enough to kick-start the career of a young man from Mississippi, newly arrived in New York City and trying to purvey his homespun blend of folk and country even in the full flush of punk's '70s insurrection.
The critics tossed all sorts of accolades his way, lauding him as the new Dylan and the savior of America's folk traditions, and yet today, looking back, Forbert dismisses the hype and takes it all in stride.
"That was part of the initial struggle to label me," Forbert protests. "Loudon Wainwright got that. John Prine got that. I could see that coming because it was a bit of a cliché. I wanted to make it clear I wasn't going to take that label literally or seriously. I certainly didn't do anything to adhere to it. It was preposterous. Nobody's going to be the new anyone. I just wanted to be myself. I had my own ideas."
While those descriptions were obviously exaggerated, Forbert did set a precedent for the scores of journeyman singer/songwriters who later followed in his wake. "I think there were some who said they got further into it because of me," Forbert concedes. "I was just doing what comes naturally. By the time we got to the album The American in Me in '92, I'd been doing a lot of it for a long time. And they still didn't know what to call it." He laughs, "Now they have labels for this sort of thing."
Since the start of that trajectory, Forbert has managed to maintain a prodigious career, releasing more than a dozen albums of original material as well as several live offerings, various collections of rarities and outtakes, and a Grammy-nominated tribute to his fellow Mississippian, bluesman Jimmie Rodgers. His everyman approach -- replete with his fragile, plaintive vocals and songs that survey a full realm of honesty and humility -- has kept its common thread and brought him to the upper tiers of today's singer/songwriter elite. Forbert's latest effort, Over With You, stays true to that template, but its bittersweet tone and various narratives about relationships gone asunder find him sounding even more tentative than before.
"I had songs that related to more topical matters," Forbert recalls. "But (producer) Chris Goldsmith and I decided to stick basically to relationship songs and it kind of follows a thread, if you want to look at it that way. It's really about a lot of the friction of relationships. This is definitely not a record the Carpenters would make."
Albums that detail the perils of faded love are nothing new of course. Popular music practically owns the franchise of hope and heartbreak. On the other hand, Over With You probes new emotional depths; like Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, these tattered tales are told from a deeply personal point of view.