Ahead of CRB Award, Steve Wariner Reflects on Changes In Nashville & Country Music Over the Years

David McClister
Steve Wariner

These days, The Gulch is one of Nashville’s hippest and most chic areas, with condominiums and popular eateries lining the city’s 12th Avenue. But Steve Wariner remembers when the area was far different.

“People would be be flipped out to see it back then,” remarks Wariner to Billboard. “I remember Dottie West actually cutting through the Gulch in the early days when she was going to the Ryman. Chet used to do it too. The Gulch was a cut-through, just a street that was barren. It was just warehouses and nothing there. It wasn’t lit for night, even. That was actually my secret cut-through, it was just a little winding path that snaked along the railroad track, and you could find yourself back to Broadway, and be right by the train station. I drive through there now, and I’m lost. I don’t really know where I am.”

The passage of time – although inevitable – is something that the singer of such hits as “The Weekend” and “Lynda” laments at times. The closing of popular meat-and-three The Pie Wagon stands as yet another shift in the lunchtime marketplace in Music City – and Wariner says he felt it.

"I was a little sad that day. Bill Anderson and I used to go to the Pie Wagon. That was one of our haunts. Actually, a lot of the eateries make up my old memories. Chet (Atkins) always liked to go to Hap Townes, which was over by Greer Stadium. That was a really cool place to go eat. There were so many cool places back then. I remember Randolph and Rice. It was an electronics place that Chet would take me to. He would go in to buy tubes and electronic parts. We went in there quite a bit. He knew everybody in there and they knew him. All of those places are gone now. When I saw the Pie Wagon going away, I just thought ‘Man, another little piece is gone.' One by one, they’ve all gone away.”

Of course, the flip side of watching time pass is that if you’re able to hang around, it’s usually a good sign that your career has had an impact. That definitely can be said of Steve Wariner’s career. From 1978 through 2003, the former guitar player for Bob Luman and Dottie West placed 61 titles on the Hot Country Songs chart – including ten number ones. He has also made an impression on the industry with his guitar prowess, as well as his songwriting. All of Wariner’s successes will be celebrated on June 20 with him being presented the 2018 CRB Artist Career Achievement Award by the Country Radio Broadcasters as part of their annual Country Radio Hall of Fame Dinner and Awards ceremony. It’s an honor that Wariner says he’s grateful for, but one that he couldn’t believe.

“I am very excited. When they called me and told me about it, I asked them ‘Are you sure that you guys have called the right number? This is Steve Wariner. You do know who you’re talking to, right?’ I’ve been pinching myself. I am so honored by the Lifetime Achievement Award. There’s a lot of people who deserve it more than me, but I’m glad to be in the company of some of the people who have gotten it before like Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard. I think Chet Atkins was the very first, and there have been some great artists to receive it. So, I will be in very good company.”

He thinks back to those early days on the road as a sideman, and says much has changed in how quick the business moves.

“It’s a totally different world. It seems like artists nowadays come right out and they’re touring with two huge buses and a huge band. They’re already polished with media training. I think back to when I first started, it was a simpler time. In my particular case, there was no such thing as any media training. It was what it was. In more cases that not, it was just an old country boy or girl that came out of the woods somewhere to Nashville and started making records. In my case, I was pulling a trailer behind a van, and we’d drive up to Maryland or Pennsylvania doing shows. We were only dreaming of getting in buses back then. Nowadays, it’s big business right from the start. That’s a big change. I look back, and in those days, I didn’t even have a manager. It was a couple of years after I was on RCA that I had one. If I had to do it over again, not much would I change, but that’s one of them. I would have tried to have some more guidance in a managerial way than I did. It was just the naivete of just being young and not knowing, but a lot of people didn’t have managers. That’s just the way it was.”

When asked about the highlights of his career, he said that near the top of the list was getting to record with one of his childhood heroes.

“One of the highlights would have to be cutting ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ with Glen Campbell. I remember thinking that his parts would all be pre-recorded, and he’d do his in California. I walk in, and we’re facing each other. He’s got a Life Savers in his mouth, taking it out to sing, and then he puts it back in. That was a fantastic memory. We were laughing, joking, and having fun. That was a great memory."

There was a night in 1996 that stands tall in Wariner’s mind, too. “The night that I was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry is high on my list. My guitar player for the evening was Chet Atkins, which was a pretty good one to have. Miss Minnie Pearl had just passed away and there was a gigantic mural behind me of her. I did her favorite song, ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.’ I was inducted by Bill, Chet played the guitar for me, and it was an unbelievable moment.”

Fans can look forward to a new release from Wariner later in the year. He says he is in the studio cutting new versions of his past hits for a project. He also continues to write, with a recent cut from Australian superstar Ian Moss, famous for his work with Cold Chisel.