From California to Nashville: Folk singer Steve Poltz embraces everything in between
Steve Poltz has some good stories. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter raconteur has gotten around, and he’s bumped into some characters — famous and obscure — over the years. Get him to tell you the one about how he and his sister met Elvis on the tarmac at Palm Springs airport when they were kids. Or about trick-or-treating at Liberace’s house. Or about the time he opened up for Styx, and it didn’t go over so well. Or about his buddy who made guitars for Johnny Cash. Or about the time a radio announcer mispronounced his name and listeners showed up at his performance thinking they were going to hear the reggae band, Steel Pulse. Or about how he still enjoys talking about religion from the stage, since it seems to get people to sit up in their seats.
Poltz grew up in Southern California and lived most of his life there. His songs reflect that So-Cal vibe, with a laid-back sense of humor and a generally unflappable attitude. But he was born in Canada, and he regularly goes back to perform and visit family there. He has dual citizenship, which might give him perspective on the peculiarities of American life. A couple of years ago he moved to Tennessee, almost on a whim, with some encouragement from his girlfriend. Poltz had pretty strongly identified himself with San Diego and Southern California.
Some of his tunes included bits about driving down to Tijuana to partake in excess over the border. Another one of his songs, “Hey Hey #19,” celebrated beloved San Diego Padres baseball player Tony Gwynn. It’s a folk song that happily settles for garden-variety enthusiasm, of-the-people pleasures and the joys of team spirit, along with some serious San Diego pride. The title, in Poltz’s allusive style, manages to evoke both Steely Dan and Neil Young while the song sounds nothing like either of them. It also fits into a great mini-tradition of songs about baseball players, like Jonathan Richman’s “Walter Johnson” and Dylan’s “Catfish.” Poltz, who plays four sets at Merlefest on Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, said he initially thought he couldn’t leave his longtime home. “I told my girlfriend, ‘No way. I am San Diego.’ I actually said that!” said Poltz, laughing at the bravado when we spoke last week by phone. He might not have become Mr. Nashville, but there’s a lot about living in Music City that he likes: Southern cooking and literature, the bustling music culture, the relative ease of driving to perform in places like Asheville, Birmingham or even Chicago. And the reduced income-tax burden was a bonus, too.
Poltz has a little something in common with fellow Nashville-based storytelling troubadour Todd Snider. They both have a slightly absurd sense of humor, and their comedic riffs often serve as a baffle for other deeper emotions. With Poltz, it’s the laughs that catch you first.
A song title like “Fistfight At A Vegan Brunch” pretty much demands your attention, clueing you into the juicy ironies from the start. The non-meat-eating crowd is generally thought to be a peace-loving bunch, so the thought of a brawl in that setting is inherently funny. It’s a classic tale of one man’s affection for a woman (“she put tofurkey on her pita, said her name was Rita”) wounding or angering another man who already considers himself romantically attached to the woman in question. It’s a little like “Gimme Three Steps” or “Tennessee Waltz,” but set at a health food restaurant.
Poltz, who turns 60 next year, has said that in addition to a fondness for musical theater (like Oliver!, Cabaret and Godspell), as a kid he also was entranced by the novelty songs of artists like Dr. Demento. That led to an interest in songwriters like Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright. Those two, in particular, could balance humor with heartache.
Some of Poltz’s funniest songs are ones where he takes potentially depressing stuff and puts a wry spin on it. “Folk Singer,” the title track off of his 2015 record, chronicles the indignities of being a guitar-toting, touring folkie: driving for hours, playing to no one, and making next to nothing. It would be sad if Poltz didn’t see the comedic potential.
“Everything in that song is true,” Poltz said. “You gotta laugh about it. I think it’s funny. I find humor in dark stuff.”
But Poltz’s life as a musician and songwriter hasn’t been characterized by fruitless struggle exactly. He co-wrote Jewel’s big hit “You Were Meant For Me,” and he’s had plenty of posh tours over the years.
His latest album Shine On, released last year, is Poltz’s first since relocating to Nashville, and it opens up with a slice of Poltz’s positive attitude, a bit of that sunny California disposition transplanted to middle Tennessee. The first song, the title track, is a slow and mellow half-spoken nudge to live a good life, don’t pick fights, strive for what makes you happy, and to embrace your fears and scars as things that make you what you are.
In what might be more proof of how the Nashville sensibility is sinking into Poltz’s worldview, there’s an excellent song on Shine On called “Pick-Up Song,” a tune filled with internal wordplay, truck talk and kiss-offs. “Girl, if I don’t pick up, it’s ‘cause I’m in my pick-up and on my way to pick up somebody else.” It’s a song that could work on a Brad Paisley record, but, with its heartland-rock oomph and biting humor, it also brings to mind the work of Cracker’s David Lowery.
Poltz is one of those songwriters who, in conversation, just sounds like his whole brain is crammed with music and tunes. Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, James Taylor, TLC (he covered their hit “Waterfalls”), Broadway, Mojo Nixon, Miles Davis, Wilco, Johnny Cash — you get the feeling his songs are in conversation with all the music that’s swirling around his head. Despite the tales of hardship depicted in his song “Folk Singer,” Poltz is optimistic and upbeat about the challenges of making music and staying true to his vision of songs that go from silly to heavy while covering a spectrum of emotions.
“I really believe that my best days are yet to come. I feel like success comes to me more each year and it gets better, as long as I keep making records,” he said. “All I’ve learned is that you can only be yourself, and it’s a good lesson to learn.”
See Steve Poltz at MerleFest, which runs April 25-28, in Wilkesboro.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.