I continue to get this amazing guest and this guy is Steve Azar. Steve Azar is a guy I’ve known for a long time. I got to know him back in the day when I played for the New Orleans Saints. He used to play up at LSU Rock and Roll, and just went along the music path of trying to make it and play cover songs and whatnot. He finally decided to go back to his roots, being from and raised in Mississippi to Nashville. He started writing country, bluesy, rocky type music, and he finally hit it. This guy has been in the music business now for a long time. He’s had some huge hits: Waitin’ on Joe, I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday), Sunshine, Soldier Song. The list goes on and on and on. We talked about a lot of these different songs, what was going on at that time of his life, and then he actually plays his songs. It’s a little bit like a storyteller VH1 podcast, which I’ve not done. As I was listening to this guy, Steve, longtime buddy, the hair on the back of my neck was literally standing up. I just wanted to jump in and start singing along. Those are the type of songs that he has. You’ll really enjoy it and you’ll be inspired by his music, his songs, his lyrics. Here we go.
Steve Azar is a singer and songwriter that marries country, rock, and blues influences to create “Delta-Soul.” Inspired by the state of Mississippi, Steve wrote many successful tracks that topped the country charts including “Waitin’ On Joe,” “I Don’t Have to Be Me,” and “Sunshine.” After many ups and downs in the beginning of his career, Steve found his musical purpose in his roots. Steve has been recognized by many notable figures including Reba McEntire, Taylor Swift, and Oprah. He is currently working on multiple projects, including the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival, The Steve Azar St. Cecilia Foundation, producing, and continuously playing music.
As always, go in, rate and review on iTunes, Finding Your Summit. If you want to find out any more info on me, you can find me at MarkPattisonNFL.com. The podcast has continued to grow and I’m very appreciative of that. Without further ado, let’s talk to Charles, The Captain.
Listen to the podcast here:
Country Music Star Steve Azar Talks About Achieving Success VH1 Storyteller Style
I’m so fired up because I have a guy I’ve known for a long time back when I played for the Saints that is down in New Orleans. We used to road trip up to LSU and go watch a buddy of mine, Brian Carey’s now wife’s brother, Steve Azar, who later would become as he is today, a country music star. I am so excited to have seen his growth over the years. I want to welcome you to the show, Steve. How are you doing?
Hello, Mark. Good to see you and not in your uniform which is good. I know it’s better on your body now at this point.
I’m lucky because of all those hits and with all the concussion-type stuff that’s going on, I was able to survive that. Maybe that’s the reason why I’m doing some of these podcasts so I actually remember some of the things going way back. It’s been really amazing for me to see you. It’s always fun to see your friends that have grown and become successful. The name of this podcast is Finding Your Summit about overcoming adversity. I think a lot of times, just like people used to look at me and go, “It looks so easy when you’re out there and you’re catching touchdowns and whatnot.” They had no idea what it took to get to these different places. The music industry is a very, very difficult place. There are millions of people all over the world that would love to be in your space in terms of being a working actor. You’re a working music. What it gets down to is you’re following your passion. I’ve seen you on stage and I can see that up there. It’s just so infectious to watch that. Where does that come from? By the way I’m talking to you in Greenville, Mississippi.
I’m back home. I’ve been here for six years. I moved our family from the top of the mountain in Franklin, Tennessee outside of Nashville down back to the Mississippi Delta when our oldest son was fifteen, our middle son, thirteen, our daughter, ten. They’ve gone to our same high school. My middle son just lit up the basketball court and did it a lot better than I did. It was fun watching our kids. Just really, really leaving Nashville and coming to the Mississippi Delta, like it was injected into their being and they really found themselves. I’m back home.
One of the things that really comes through in your music is talking about the Delta. You grew up in a family of five. You’ve got three brothers and two sisters. What was that about growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, which I’ve been there which is a little dot on the map, but the most wonderful people ever that really dug into your soul?
I think the best way to explain it is my wife, Gwen, and I started our foundation in 2006, the Steve Azar St. Cecilia Foundation. We did some events like we did sports challenge for the CMAs, and we had a bunch of your friends, a bunch of NFL past quarterbacks, from Jim McMahon to Steve Beuerlein, to Jim Kelly, Gino Terrell, the list went on and on. They would all come in along with some music buddies of mine and we would do this crazy sports challenge. That was really the extent of our foundation. The best way to sum up what the magic is down here is this hospitality and old friends and a sense of community. When we moved back, it was like here we are in this big city. It’s a lot easier to get to Nashville than Greenville. It would seem like our foundation would really flourish there, but it really didn’t take off until we came here. I got back to my old friends. This very mystic Southern hospitality that we call the Mississippi Delta at ethnic hot bed. We have a documentary coming up after making our new album called Something in the Water and besides the art is the people. I can’t explain to you how it gave us a sense of purpose and also gave us a desire to really step things up and start giving back to the arts for kids. Our foundation has always been targeted by the Mississippi Delta even when we were in Nashville. When we were here, it was just so much easier and seeming like a step in our life that made us really jump all in.
There’s nothing like going back home. People can feel that too. My sense is that you really stand out. You’ve been the governor and the State has recognized you as an ambassador and things like that. You can feel that in your soul. You move around enough. My sense is that’s the life of a music star. You were just out here in California and you’re all over the United States. I’m not sure if you go internationally or not.
You’re going back to your home base. It’s just a great thing to be. A quick side story. I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with you. Back in the day when I was playing, the Saints were doing very well. This is after decades of just they didn’t win a game. There was a roommate of mine, Steve Trapilo, who unfortunately passed away, but he was a big offensive lineman from Boston College. We were invited to go down this teeny tiny town called Tylertown, Mississippi. They threw a parade for us. We literally got in this convertible car. We’re going down the street. It was lined with people. They were just begging for us to go over their house and we ended up going over to one of the people’s houses. We had collard greens and red beans and rice and all that stuff.
I like to shop like grocery store shop. It’s a peaceful time for me. We love to cook. I think it’s so funny because everybody’s pleased to see me. When I first came here, you could hear whispers in the house and all that. Now they’re all sick of me. It’s been really good to just blend back in. We’re doing good things with the help of everybody. I get thanked a whole lot from all demographics and ages and it’s amazing. To be honest with you, I feel like I’m just a piece of the puzzle. A lot of small towns are trying to take them back. There are a lot of people that moved away from here. It’s tough down here. Public schools are tough. The one thing that you can do in small towns like Tylertown or Greenville or whatever is you can insert the arts in people’s lives, that educational aspect. When you do, it just really seems to impact and round off a person. The arts come in all forms. Down here, Jim Henson and the Muppets, there’s B.B. King, there’s Albert King, there’s William Alexander Percy. The list goes on. We play golf with Morgan Freeman. He’s down here and he calls Bingo every once in a while in Sumner, Mississippi at the Bayou Bend Country Club. It’s just crazy. It is a sense of small town and people appreciate things because it’s just so condensed when you get down here.
One thing that I really appreciate about what you do, and I really believe this, because I didn’t think that this was necessary. I don’t mean this as any kind of a jab or anything. Back in the day when we did come up and watch you in LSU, what I saw up there and I remember it like it was yesterday, there was this really dynamic performer who loves to sing. I’m not sure if he’s in the right lane because you were singing rock and roll.
I wasn’t in the right lane at all.
Maybe that gets into your summit and what you had to go through to break through. Years later, when you came out with Waitin’ on Joe and ‘Til Monday, that’s the first time I’d heard you since that period of time and I was like, ” That guy, he nailed it. That’s it. That’s him.” It’s just innate to your soul. Maybe if you grew up in Seattle like I did, I’d be playing grunge. You’re not trying to be somebody you’re not. As it all turns out, you’re really good at what you do.
Here’s what happened and here’s what pushed me back home to the Delta. I struggled fitting in in Nashville. It was right on Waitin’ on Joe, which was a song I wrote that I didn’t even know was a song. I was really trying to get a record deal but also trying to heal at the time.
What were you healing from?
Just the desperation of trying to finally get to go back out and play live again. I used to play 200 dates but the only way it was going to work out this time was hits on the radio at that point. My summit at that point was the world finally hearing my music. At that point, I needed a big record label. I need a lot of push behind me to push me up that mountain. It was all this writing and I had the best mentors. My publishers were songwriter of the decade, songwriter of the year. One guy had wrote What’s Forever For? when he was seventeen years old by himself up in Bristol, Tennessee. All of a sudden he has 300 songs recorded a year. These are the guys that I’m working with. The only part was they all wanted me to be them. The struggle I had was, “If it worked for them, I just need to be that.” Then I’ve gone through this whole other thing. I’m playing rock and roll. I was influenced by the ‘70s and ‘80s. Musically, I was writing all my own songs but I was lost. It didn’t sound good and I didn’t know my voice at all.
As I went to Nashville, I continued that process. I didn’t have a hit until I was 38. That’s impossible these days. You have to be 21, 22. I was ten years late then, everybody said it. All of a sudden, I was just dumb enough to not think about it and believe it. Looking back, it was so important because I wasn’t even country. Waitin’ on Joe was not really a country song at all. It was really more about a Mississippi Delta thing. As I started to find myself, everybody says I said this but I didn’t. It was in the newspaper. When I was out touring with Bob Seger back in ’06, ’07, everybody kept talking about this own version of music called Delta Soul. At that point, I realized that’s who I am. That’s a problem because there’s no box that it fits in. With that, I had to decide and I had to look at my wife and kids and they just all looked at me and go, “Do what you do.”
Moving back home was part of that journey, giving up the big agent, giving up the big management company. They were big and they thought I was crazy. I probably was but at the end of the day, I’ve really found this Delta Soul thing. The only way I can explain it, Mark, is this. When I was just ten, eleven, twelve, I used to sneak in some blues joints. Now it sounds exactly like that except coming back home in full circle, having kids, raising kids, getting a shoe beat out, being at the top of the mountain, falling back down to the bottom still fighting hard. We have our own independent record label in the last three or four releases. Now, it’s not necessarily blues, it’s not folk, it’s not country, it’s not rock and roll. It’s just a combination of all of it. It’s so easy to write now and I’m so in tune with what I want to say. Here we are. I’m climbing this mountain. We’re not there yet but this is definitely a milestone.
A lot of people sometimes I think live within their own realm. The key is staying authentic to who you are. Especially going to the Combines and all that stuff in the NFL, I had friends come up to me and say, “You will never make it.” You’ve got to have those blinders on and all you know is you have your eye on the ball and you’re not going to take your eye off it. You may have to adjust it as you go, but you just need to stay true to who you are and do those daily things to get you to the end point. Let me ask you this question. Waitin’ on Joe, is that about your brother, Joe?
It was about three different Joes. As you know, the blood of Joes goes in my family. First verse, I always picked at Joe for being late. He was always late. We would be in Memphis and he’d talk to my buddy, Danny. I remember I’d go, “Meet me there, I’m almost there.” We just left Memphis. We’re two and a half hours away. He’d go like, “You just said meet you there.” That was the Joe time. The second verse was about my dream of what I wanted. I felt so close but so far away. The tow boats in the Mississippi Delta which was a big industry, I used to have friends that said, “If you don’t get there in time, it’s gone and you miss it.” I started using that as a metaphor.
My Uncle Joe, who was the mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi, always dreamed of being governor. He was a great man, my mom’s brother. He died at 33 of cancer and ended up at the MD Anderson, passing away there. I remember thinking as a boy, “He was old enough.” I’m 34 years old and I have a son basically almost the age that his son was when he passed away. I realized he died as a kid and he didn’t get to raise his son. The train was a metaphor for the cancer. There are three verses about nothing. I don’t even know what they were. I’ve got to be honest with you, I was cutting the grass miserable, trying to figure it out. I was cutting the grass on a side hill lot that was so steep, if you went backwards or forwards, you’d fall. I’d slip and fall down every time. I had to remember to stay focused. It was such a slope. All of a sudden, the chorus it just hits me, “Waitin’ on Joe.”
By the way, this is for people who have not heard Steve Azar. This is your first big hit, right?
Second big hit. I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday) was sitting under the desk for two years, and then I wrote this. This is what got it done. I’ll do the second verse for you. “Towboat’s a leaving because it don’t care what’s not on board, who’s not there. Once that whistle blows, down the mighty river it rolls. Man, if I could be more like that, I’d get on with my life and never look back. Instead of waiting on Joe, what do you know. Time flies fast and he is slower than a… I told him over and over, “Now, don’t you be late.” Oh, but like always, I’m just sitting on go and waiting on Joe.”
That is such a beautiful song. A lot of times in life, I think we need those triggers that springboard us to what was that magical break.
This is the perfect example. I was a kid and I was in argument with the greatest record label exec in history named Ahmet Ertegun. He signed everybody from Ray Charles; you name the act, this guy signed it. He was from Turkey and he owned Atlantic Records, him and his brother. I was in there and I thought he was going to sign me. I thought this was it. I’d been up there a couple of times. He’s sitting at his desk and he plays me the Marc Cohn’s song Walking in Memphis. Back then it was cassette and it was Marc talking to him. It was the work tape. He plays it for me and he goes, “I’m signing you or him, who am I signing?” That’s when it hit me. I go, “I’ve got to be that good.” I’m not even close. He goes, “Not only is this song I’m signing this act. This is going to win the Grammy. This is how big it is. Here’s the deal, I believe you’re going to get there. I don’t know what you are and I don’t think you do either. I do believe you’ve got to stick to your heavily blues background. I think you’re sort of country, you’re sort of rock and roll, you’re sort of both, all these things.” He was basically predicting my future. If I had Waitin’ on Joe at the time, I’d really believe he would sign me. It took me all those years to just get there. I’m the guy that made the same mistakes over and over because I’m so stubborn. I think some of those mistakes you make in life over and over actually are just part of the journey. I had to go through them. I couldn’t change a thing.
The fortunate thing for you too, is that again, for people who have not seen you on stage, you just got this natural energy. You’re just one of those highly energetic guys on stage. You just love to be up there in that setting.
The only place I feel absolutely at home is on stage.
You don’t need to because I travel with UCLA to all the games. Jim going into his six year, so that means I’m going in my sixth year. I’m so blessed to be asked to go through all that stuff. There’s no place I feel more at home than going into that side and on that field, in the locker room and being with the guys. My longtime childhood friend, we mentioned him before and I’ll mention him again, Brian Carey, your brother-in-law now.
He’s a music lover.
We’re locker-mates at our golf club in Seattle. I remember talking to him, always getting the Steve updates. As you know, you’re still down the south and I’m moving back to Seattle and LA and whatnot. I’d ask him, I said, “What’s going on?” When we were talking about this Waitin’ on Joe album, he was talking about this other song that you were just starting to mention, I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday). I was like, “What is that all about?” He started to explain, he goes, “I’m telling you, this guy is on a roll and he’s on his way,” I’m like, “I’ve got to hear this song.” Tell us a little bit about that song. Set that up.
Over a lot of Tootsie Rolls. I just started writing one other song and then it just flew out of my mouth, the hook. All my best songs, the songs that have really done well have been songs with no titles. I just start at something and I work my way to the title. Every one of them. I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday), Waitin’ on Joe, none of them had titles. Sunshine didn’t have a title, although it’s a simple title, but it worked its way to there. This new album, except for one thing, all the titles were written as I made the journey to it. I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday) was just this thing. We went in the basement with my producer at the time. He was literally like a vampire. He woke up at 3:00 in the afternoon, him and his wife. He was one of the biggest songwriters in history there. He was the guy that really helped me learn how to make my own music on my own. He was really great. His name was Rafe Van Hoy.
Rafe only put it in a simple way. He would turn at me after I’d been there with him. I already had a meal 11:00 at night. We’ve got two kids and one on the way and I’ve got to get home. He turns at 11:30 to me and he goes, “How are you doing?” like I hadn’t been there all day. I’d deal with that and then at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning trying to get up, but it was in that basement at 11:00, 12:00 at night when we recorded everything off of that record. We spent zero dollars. His wife was from Tasmania, Australia. There was a band house. Her band was living with them, and the drummer was Little River Band’s keyboard player’s son. There’s all these guys. I made this whole album with a bunch of Tasmanians, one East Tennessee kid named Rafe, and me. For some way, we were able to capture the Delta. We were able to capture all these things because they just didn’t have the system in place. They taught me that, “We’re going to ride a shotgun and we’re going to tell you when to turn left and right, but this is all on you.” That’s when it hit me. I finally had somebody in my life that said this. It’s just too important of a story.
This thing was on record labels’ desks, we were kicking tire around. I felt like it was a hit. We had the Mississippi Delta, an old Delta lick that I remembered that we used to do. It was when I was fourteen or fifteen. All of this came together. The song came out 9/10, the day before 9/11. It was the most added song in country radio. My record label president had only given me a singles deal. The guy wanted a good guy. To be honest with you, he was stoned a lot and he wasn’t a good stone. Here I had this guy that’s in charge of my life and it always concerned me. The ball was dropped on his end and it obviously leaked on down for a long time. Somehow he realized, “He had the most added record.” It was constant proving. After 9/11 happened, the next day, I remember getting ready to go to Iowa to push the record. Everybody’s fired up at the label. All the young guys in the promotion staff who became friends of mine, they battled with me, even beyond him saying like, “Azar, he’s not really country. He’s a pain in the tail.” He was always saying I was a pain that I was too hard to work.
We went out in the road every week. We play four or five different radio stations. We were sleeping two hours a week, waking up in the morning. The song would die every Wednesday. In the music business, your song has to have more spins the following week on Monday than it did before. You lose your bullet is what they call it. When you lose your bullet twice, the song is dead. This song lost its bullet eleven times. Every Thursday they would call and go, “The record’s dead.” Every Monday they call and go, “It’s back.” What happened was radio people were taking it literal. They wouldn’t play it until Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and so we kept increasing spins. All of a sudden I remember, we took this road trip to the Midwest and I bet I visited 30 radio stations, put on 30 shows in five days. When I came back home to record, 9/11, the sting of it had a little bit of the edges rubbed off. It had been six or seven months later, that long, and all of a sudden we just found ourselves in the top twenty and then it was over. It just steamrolled to the top. It went to the top to number two. It didn’t matter to me that much but now I look back, the difference in a number two record and number one is there’s no party. It’s like you climbing the mountain. You get almost to the top and you just sit there and you don’t get there. It’s not a good feeling.
We get there and it lives at number two, in between Alan Jackson’s Drive and George Strait’s Run. Here we are, my shirttail out, these guys have cowboy hats and here I am not even close. We’re battling this thing and it was in the city of Houston. They were mad because they were promised a Shania Twain show and I was on her label. They wouldn’t tell me why Houston wouldn’t play it, but there were three stations. In our world, the top ten markets is like electoral votes. They matter bigger. One spin in Houston, Texas is as much as seven spins in Jackson, Mississippi. You can’t make it to the top without them. They were mad but they wouldn’t tell me. Anyway long story short, it lived at number two. Then I decided on my own to go see the guys in Houston. They were the first station to add Waitin’ on Joe two weeks early. If I would have done that when I knew I needed to, I would have had number one record probably for four weeks. Once again, it was my record guy. Just looking back, I don’t have any regret except I did have my hand one time at the back of my pocket going, “I think it’s just time to knock it off.” I’ve got to do it. He had pushed all of my buttons and he loved pushing things.
Sometimes you need obstacles in your way like that, rocks, whatever you want to call them, to push through and to make you want it even more to get you really focused on the end goal. I built a ranch in Montana outside of Bozeman years ago. It was outside of Bozeman, we’re about 30 miles on this whole country road, it’s just beautiful out there, and there’s an old whistle-stop. At this whistle-stop is a population probably six at that time and we’re driving up to this other town called Ringling, Montana. As we’re driving up this old road, all of a sudden in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t get any radio stations, we kept hitting search, search, search. All of a sudden, we land on this country thing and here you are singing away. I had my now unfortunately ex and my two daughters, and we’re all in the car; they were probably six and eight. We’re all singing your song and it was just a joyful moment for us. I’d love it if you give us a little take on that.
I’ll do it for both of your girls. “I got me a brand new car waiting in the driveway, shining like a bright new star. I’ve been wishing on it every day to take me away from here, so I called in to where I work, told a little white lie. No, my back don’t really hurt but that’s my alibi. My temporary ticket to anywhere but there. Call it an early weekend, call it going off the deep end, call it what you want. I made up my mind. I don’t have to be me ‘til Monday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I ain’t going to face reality. Three days without punching a time clock. Three nights of going non-stop. No work and all play. I don’t have to be me ‘til Monday.” It went a little bit like that.
Let me ask you this question, are you more of a lyricist or the guy writing the music or are you a combo?
It all happens at one time. I’ve never been able to just write lyrics or write music. The greatest advice I ever got finally from one of my publishers. I’m just so stuck on this line. You get stuck trying to find a rhyme and you do all this things. He goes, “What would you say next? Forget it. What would you say next if you’re having a conversation with your audience?” That’s when it hit me. Then he said, the other great advice was, “Sing it like you say it.” I just go, “What?” He goes, “That’s how people’s ears are tuned. When you write melody and songs, you’re singing it like you’d say it. That’s why it’s so identifiable.” Those things have stuck. When I heard those two things, it took me two weeks for it to seep in and then it was game on. That’s when it happened. I realized that if they don’t sing well, then they’re the wrong words. It was pretty easy just to throw them out. Music and words come at the same time.
There’s no question that’s a talent. What you just said to me makes sense, but I can’t write music and I can’t write the words or things. When I get into the final summit day, it’s weeks in terms of preparation of going up and going down, and going up and going down, and acclimating and trying to get myself. When I finally get to the point where now I’m going from the high point of the mountain, like I was down a year ago in Argentina climbing a mountain called Aconcagua, we’re up at 19,500 feet, which is a few feet above where you’re at right now, I might add. The top was just under 23,000 feet.
I’ve made this playlist and this playlist has got all these songs on it that inspire me, that drive me when I know that I’m at my wit’s end and all my energy’s gone away. I just need to have music fill my soul in addition to nutrition and things like that. I need to keep that going in my ears. It helps me get up the mountain. One of those songs I put on there, it’s actually track number four for me, is this most beautiful song called Sunshine. The words are so beautiful and it means a lot to me in a lot of different ways. On top of all this, you put together one of the most beautiful videos I’ve ever seen. It’s just about possibility and about love and about purpose and the best in people, relationships. The whole thing is so beautiful that it’s so soothing to me when I’m going and I’m climbing. I also listen to it at other times. I want you to know that is on my top playlist. I would take it to the top of Everest.
That’s humbling. That means so much to me. The funny thing is it has this hypnotic thing. Let me tell you where I was in my life at that point. This was a really tough time.
Waitin’ on Joe came out in 2002?
2001. I was like one of the poster child for Napster. People were showing up at our shows but a lot of college kids had bought into Waitin’ on Joe. When the video came out with Morgan Freeman, it really helped me put it on the map and there were other songs on my record that people were drawn to. We were showing up at places and all the club owners and concerts, they were going like, “These people aren’t our people.” I decide I’ve got to go see what’s going on here because we’re not selling tickets until the night up and it’s packed. You can’t get in. Everybody’s singing every word to everything. What happened was that was the year my album, of all the times for it to come out, it came out at the beginning of Napster and I finally decided to go to a bunch of fraternity guys’ apartment that they had invited me and they go, “This is where we’re getting your music.” I went, “’Oh my gosh.” It was foreign at this point. Anyway, I got sent to Washington, DC. My album was one of the most illegally downloaded records of the year. I was going like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You waited this long for this?” I overcome that. During that period of chasing radio which was so important that I went and saw everybody, I developed a cyst on my throat. This cyst got so big, when I would sneeze or I do anything, it rupture.
What year was this?
This was 2003, 2004 and 2005. What happened was our record label, Mercury, went up for sale. I was on the road at the point doing shows with Brad Paisley, Keith Urban at times and Rascal Flatts and me. There were some shows that they put us on that we were going out and doing shows. We were killing it. Everybody was talking about this Delta style of music. We were the only ones really doing something that was so unique and a pretty wild show. We were intense and the band was great. My drummer was from Rome, Italy. It wasn’t some country thing you’ve ever seen but we were sticking out and people were getting it. I got a call from the record label president. He couldn’t wait to tell me. You could hear it in his voice, “Here’s the deal. We were going to go six deep on you but now we’re up for sale so you need to go. We’ll write another record and we’ll see you in a year or two.” That’s what happened. Everybody always goes, “What happened?”
For you, it’s like, “Once again, I’ve got to reignite.”
I remember lying in bed for two weeks. I couldn’t get out of bed because it was done. The game was on, we have the songs, we needed to go deep. Here’s what happened. All of a sudden, I have throat surgery in 2005. I’ve won over another A&R guy because my head guy kept firing the guys that kept liking me. I’m not the only guy that was targeted toward, but I kept winning over all these people who I struggled to even get meetings with for ten years. Now, I’ve gone through all these stages and I’ve won them over. I’ve won everybody over. Then he goes, “I’m just not going to do it anymore.” I walked in and said, “I want out of my deal.” He let me out of my deal.
In the meanwhile, I was making all of this music upstairs at my house because I had learned. The late nights with Rafe, I had learned how to do it myself. Now for the first time, the music was all me. I had nobody writing shotgun but for myself. This was the most important time in my life musically that led me to today. All of a sudden, I get a call from my agent, Sandy, “You’ve been offered the first seven dates of the Bob Seger tour starting in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” I go, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I go but he said, “You’re only getting seven dates because Eric Church is on fire right now. Eric Church, he’s a capital act as well and he’s going to have the next 53 shows.” I go out there and the place is going crazy. Before it went crazy, I get up the bus, I’ve been listening to jazz all day, and I’m watching the Food Network. I go in there to be sound checked and that’s when I started writing Sunshine because I like to write at sound check. It just fell out. It was my sound check song in Grand Rapids the first night of the tour. I remember Don Brewer, he was the drummer, he was also the drummer in Grand Funk and he was Bob’s drummer in the Silver Bullet Band. He goes, “Didn’t I hear you writing that? Weren’t you writing that the other day and you’re playing it already?” I said, “I like to do that.” He goes, “That takes a lot of guts.” I’m going like, “Why?”
Anyway, we were off the tour and my publicist calls in and goes, “Bob’s writing about you. The Pittsburgh Gazette just said he’s talking about you, ‘My opening act, Steve Azar, and how we grew up playing a lot live.’ He thinks you’re still with him.” I’m going, “There’s no way.” All of a sudden, I get a call and said he wanted me to do the next 47 shows. I started playing Sunshine at these shows because it was working. We come off the road in April and we go right into the studio. We set up, we stand up, we played this live and we record it because we had it. A few things happened with this. One was I wrote it the first time at the Bob Seger tour. If I’m not on that tour, I’d never write it. I’m not in that mood. Two, Reba McEntire just recorded a song of mine and Rafe’s called Big Blue Sky and she was the guest DJ when the song went number one on the video charts. Three, Taylor Swift said it was her favorite song in People Magazine, all in the same timeframe. Then to top it off, when I moved back to Greenville, I’m sitting here going, “What did I just do? I moved back to Greenville. What am I doing?” I get a call and it was Oprah’s people saying it’s going to be in the top things to buy this Christmas, the whole album, because of Sunshine. Once again, it’s out of my control. All you can do is do the song and all this other stuff will happen. You still have to work your tail off. You’ve got to be in shape to climb that mountain.
It’s serendipitous a little bit in terms of, for sure, you have to put yourself out there. By the way, I’m going to give you another nugget for another one of your lyrics down the road that you can think about when you’re up there on stage in front of thousands of people, it’s called The Summit Song. In this case, we’re going to use The Summit Song as Sunshine because that is my summit song. I’d love to hear it from you.
I’ll play the verse to the chorus for you. “Your dark hair draped across my pillow says I finally got it right. And as I watch you dreaming, twisted in the sheets, I can’t stop thinking about last night. Well I’ve waited so long, so long, so long for someone like you. And as this morning breaks through the window pane, it reveals the truth. Baby, you’re my sunshine, first light. Find your way to places that only know lies, failed tries and bruised skies, with hardly time to hold on or be strong, now I’m strong because like the dawn, you push it all away. I tell you, you’re my sunshine. Everybody needs a little sunshine.” It goes like that.
I know you probably have hundreds of songs in the can or in your head or ideas or whatever, but when something comes out and it’s magical like that, it’s just a gift. You’re given a gift to the world.
The biggest obstacle was it was the first time I had my own record label. I’ve got my own record label and I met this great man named Al Wozney. Somewhere in one of these celebrity golf tournaments, we became great friends. He really helped get this label under way for me. Here we are competing against the monsters, the big machines that I used to be on, and all of a sudden this song got to somewhere around twenty. We just ran out of time, but the video goes number one and I’m getting calls from all these old record guys still running everything down there, “You’re doing this, this is impossible.” It had been, at the time, I think the number one highest charted song in Billboard to be a true independent record label. We still fell a little short of our goal but at the end of the day, it was fun battling because I loved it. I knew I was driving my old record label guy crazy. That was my jabs back. It’s just so funny but that song was very important because without that song and all those things I went through, we couldn’t have had that feat in my life.
There are all these different signs that hits you along the way and you just mentioned them, Oprah and Taylor Swift and other people that were picking up your music. I do believe in the world of music that so much of it is archived. I’m listening to songs and now my eighteen year old daughter is listening to songs that I used to listen to back in the ‘70s, and we can do that because they’re recorded and they’re kept and whatnot. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to continue to write songs, strike a chord in people, and then because of the song that maybe I’m sure you haven’t even written yet that’s out there, that’s going to pull people back into Waitin’ on Joe and Sunshine and some of these other ones.
The good news is I’m proud of those songs. It’s not like I wasn’t myself at the time. At that point in my life, it all had to be that. The good news is I like referring back to those years at 2000 on. We’ve been told I Don’t Have To Be Me (‘Til Monday) is in the top five most played songs since then on radio. That’s crazy. It’s been decided at six or seven number ones but it never got to number one, it got to two. It’s just all that you draw upon and where I am now is just so different, but it’s not really. I’ve been on this journey to really find myself. That’s why I’m moving back home. I didn’t need to co-write, I didn’t need to write. A lot of Waitin’ on Joe I wrote by myself, but you co-wrote a lot in Nashville. You were still at the mercy of another opinion, another soul. When I moved here, it was all me. I was alone. This is when moving back full circle, seeing your place that you grew up at home from a different viewpoint. After living a lot of life, after failing a lot, succeeding, failing a lot, succeeding, it all made sense. Now writing is never a burden, it’s an extreme joy. I feel blessed to get to do it now more than I ever did and I’m right on now.
I’m going to ask you the question and then I want to give a statement. The question is what is that like to be out on the road with a lot of these famous acts? You’re talking about Bob Seger. You’re talking about Rascal Flatts, Eric Church, some of these other ones. I think you’ve opened for Garth Brooks at one point, right?
I don’t know if I ever opened for Garth. I know Trisha and I did some shows, Trisha Yearwood. I played with everybody. We all played with everybody.
For me, that used to be like when I first got down to the LA Raiders, Jim Plunkett was the quarterback. I remember I was in the huddle and Jim Plunkett’s in there, Matt Cassel’s in there, Todd Christensen, and Cliff Branch. We break the huddle and go out; Howie Long was the defensive lineman and Matt Millen and Lester Hayes, Lyle Alzado. The list went on and on and on. I was just like, “I’m so privileged and grateful to be in this group of people, of peers.”
I can only imagine because you were a college kid and all of a sudden you’re there.
I just saw these guys playing the Super Bowl two years before.
That was one of those teams were they were iconic. You were just in an iconic huddle. You probably just didn’t need to look. You just need to be there.
What is that like for you when you get to go rub shoulders and you’re talking?
I’m so used to it now but it always feels humbling. I don’t know what it was like in the huddle, especially with football and knowing you had to have this mindset of being physical. We don’t have physicality in the music business. I think it’s more emotional only. The best way to explain it is everybody great that I’ve ever met in our business, they make you feel so at ease, they’re extremely humble, and I don’t know if they know that they deserve to be there. You get that sense and they make you feel like you belong. There’s never a point of you feeling like you’re with your idol at all. The point is, “Welcome aboard,” and they love what I do, and that’s the feeling I’ve got with all the best and the greatest. Bob Seger was the nicest guy in the world. His wife was fantastic, his daughter Sam. We were together for seven months and the bottom line was I got to know him really well. The only way I can explain it is extremely humble to be there is how Bob felt. I think that translates in his music and that’s why his fans keep coming back because he’s that honest.
I think that also goes back to what you opened with about you and your wife creating this foundation. You start to see success, you start to associate with other people who can affect change, who can help raise money. The next thing you know, you’re having a golf tournament and you’re having this wonderful people come in and join, and you play and do all the things that you guys do. That’s just all part of giving back. You’re paying it forward.
It’s something you feel like at some point you have to do. The funny thing was when we started to do it we were spending so much time because it’s a huge endeavor to put one on the success. Getting a lot of our celebrity friends, sometimes getting them to commit, “We’re coming,” but then until that paperwork and all, “Who’s coming and who’s not?” But they’ve been so supportive and they come back every year. We created this because of the community we’re in. Like I said, everybody can’t wait. It was like the unofficial, like the big sponsors, the CEO of UPS comes, the CEO of big pipeline companies. There are more CEOs than I can explain. They’re coming on in their jets into Greenville, Mississippi. Thank goodness, there was an air base here and that the runway’s long enough. They’re flying on their jets. They come here and they come early.
A celebrity like Reggie Smith, the great baseball legend, Reggie’s become one of my best friends. I was just with him. Reggie comes in and does a little baseball camp with the kids here. He came in Tuesday and left on Monday. He didn’t like to leave. They love it, him and his wife. They’ve become friends with all of my friends, and the friends that I’ve met, the big sponsors that come in like David Abney of UPS, my United Airlines friends. All these guys come in and they all become a family. It’s like a family reunion every year. Every year, there may be some new group. I was a celebrity in the pairing at Monday After the Masters a couple of years ago with a group of Kentucky Wildcats. They’re decked out and I’m going, “You guys are Duke fans, right?” I did not know they were Kentucky fans. “What? What did you just say?” They were all doctors. One guy owned a bunch of convenience stores but the rest of them were doctors and their spouses were doctors. We had the best time. Also two years later, they come, and now we’ve become really good friends and they’ve been added to our family. They’re going, “We’re never going to miss it.” They just love it. They’re helping us continue to grow the foundation. It’s not like the biggest event in the world. We’re limited on how much money we can raise but it’s been successful. We’re doing a lot for the kids. You can do a little bit in a lot of places down here and really affect children. Right now, that is just so important. We got Blue Cross on our team. I met this one guy playing golf at the BMW. He went in our playing group six years ago for the first one. He’s become the biggest sponsor. It’s just crazy. You meet people and all of a sudden they just feel like they want to give. It’s unbelievable.
We saw that situation in Houston. People want to get involved and that’s the human spirit coming alive. You put that synergy together and you get an event. Then you start to help people, whether it’s $1 or $1 million, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just $1 more than they had before. You just have to create this event.
The ultimate compliment for me was this. We were filming part of our documentary and I was with my oldest son who’s out in California in college. He’s going to be a filmmaker. He’s really talented. He’s really amazing. We were back in our house and I was telling him a story of me and Eugene Powell. This is how I got hooked at ten years old behind my dad’s liquor store. My dad had the first legal liquor store in Mississippi truthfully. He went to Notre Dame, went in the Air Force, and then he opens the first legal liquor store. How does that happen? That is where I learned to do my thing. I was out there, we were filming some of it for this film. This guy walks up, about seventeen years old, an African-American kid and he goes, “I just wanted you to know that Eugene Powell used to come over and give us money to talk about you. I know that you and him were friends.” He goes and starts unrolling the tires of my car. I’m going like, “You don’t need to do that.” He goes, “No, I want to do it.” I said, “I have no money on me.” We were there filming. I said, “I don’t have any money.” He goes, “Mr. Azar, you do so much for this community and so much of the people I know that every once in a while somebody needs to do something for you.” He was a seventeen-year-old kid.
I looked at my son and I said, “That’s really one of the true purposes for him to appreciate it.” I’m not patting myself on the back. I was moved beyond belief because you just don’t know. You don’t know what you got, all of what’s happening. It’s not just me. I’m obviously the figure of point that you see, but like I said, it’s this great community that’s coming together of friends and new friends, and then we’re doing it and it’s affecting that kid so much that he feels like he needs to give back himself. I just thought that was just one of those memorable moments of my life.
I know you also have a heart for the American farmer. I also know you have a heart for our troops. One of the songs that really moved me, again another long line of tunes that you’ve come up with, is Soldier Song. There are a lot of things going on overseas right now and it’s such a beautiful song. This world is crazy. The one thing that I think sometimes soothes us as a nation, as a world, is the sound of a song. When I heard this song, I think you put it to a beautiful video and just great lyrics and great melody.
This was so inspired when I made my first visit to Walter Reed in Washington, DC. There was a kid in there that had lost his limbs. This was in the hospital for all the injured troops and soldiers and stuff. His wife was with him and he probably was nineteen or twenty and she had a baby. She’s pushing the baby and pushing him. I walked out of there. I was complaining because at that point I’d been on the road for about three weeks and haven’t been home. I love being with my family, I hate being gone that long. I like to sleep in and out, making sure at least just get enough of a doze. I was complaining at that point. This kid has gone over and he was gone for about a year, and right when he was about ready to come home, this happened. I was having a wreck and I go, “Oh my god.” It hit me. I walk on the bus and I just start, “Your soldier is finally coming home to you and the kids, the life I’ve missed. To no more nights alone, no more. To my little boy’s last baseball game, to my baby girl’s first school day, I swear I’ll never miss church as long as I live. I know it’s late, please pick up the phone. Your soldier is finally coming home. I hope and pray when you got lonely, you thought of me and you got proud. I can’t believe a year’s gone by and all I’ve done is fight. I can’t wait to come back home and put away my gun, do nothing but love, start again if we can where it was.”
I started thinking about the albums I hadn’t played in a long time and I was stumbling through the guitar, but that’s alright. I’m human. I can handle making mistakes. Just walking out of there and getting on the bus in the very back of it, it just fell out. That was such a reality check, one that I wish I had never gotten.
I was down in Tanzania just last year with Chris Long of the now Philadelphia Eagles. We were down there with probably six NFL players and a bunch of Green Berets. Three of the folks down there, two were amputees and one was blind. We all climbed, got to the top of the mountain. Jim Mora was with us. Being around them and the sacrifice that they give to our country, it’s just such an amazing thing. Again, it just puts whatever situation you think you may be in and just reduce it down to like, “I haven’t done anything.” Let’s move forward. I want to get into where you are at today. Something that’s really super cool, I want you to give this a little bit of a set up. Now, you moved back to Greenville, Mississippi. There is a history around down by the liquor store and whatnot. You came up with just a beautiful song, There’s Something In The Water.
The film is actually called Something in the Water. The documentary of us getting together in this old blues club called Club Ebony in Indianola. You’re going to see us coming together with these guys: Five of B.B. King’s guys, one of Elvis’ and one of Little Milton’s. The name of the album’s called Down at the Liquor Store. I know it’s so confusing sometimes, but they’re both synonymous with each other. The album’s out now but it’s Down at the Liquor Store.
It’s Steve Azar & The Kings Men. The Kings Men are this collection of guys who used to play with B.B. King and Elvis and Little Milton, correct?
Tell me about how that got together and where you recorded this. There’s some historic value to what you did, correct?
Right. When I first came back home, I was asked to start a music festival. I have a former buddy of mine that I’ve gotten to know. We started the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival. What’s it done is it was on the banks of the river, a mini Bonnaroo meets Jazz Fest, but it’s our own version, very Mississippi Delta, very authentic in every way. Obviously the blues was created down there. The Delta Blues is the beginning of it all. It’s the centerpiece of all popular genres of music just about commercialized. We want to celebrate that. What happens is I’m back home and I started getting asked to play the Delta Blues Festival. B.B. had passed away and it was the first year and they said they wanted Keb’ Mo’ and myself to headline his first homecoming festival in Indianola, Mississippi that he wasn’t going to be in because he just passed. I was so humbled. Then I had just finished writing this record. During this five or six-year process I was writing a record I didn’t even know I was writing. If you ask me did I have any songs that I’ve written? I just said, “I probably have a couple.” I’d written twenty and I didn’t even know it. I just went and do the math.
I’d been asked during this period to write the World Ski Championships’ official song which is called Fly. I wrote that and performed it in Vail in 2015. That song ended up being in Kevin James’ feature track to Mall Cop 2. I did that. The Delta Soul record, which was before this new record, was me really trying to make my way a record about Mississippi. I still wrote most of it when I was in Nashville. I’ve got one foot in Nashville and my mind is in Mississippi. I love that record, but I was making my way to have both feet on Mississippi soil. I had to write this new record and to be worthy of recording with these icons that I grew up loving and my parents grew up loving with their bandmates. Born from this was this conversation that my manager, Erin, had with the head director of the B.B. King Blues Museum. They just started talking about, “What if Steve would make his new record in Club Ebony?” which in 1948 the club was founded by African-American gentlemen who the Chitlin’ Circuit played there. There is such a history, and B.B. came back and bought it. His second wife’s mom was the second owner. She owned a place called Ruby’s Nite Spot in Leland, Mississippi and she bought Club Ebony. Midway to the thing, B.B. fell in love with Sue Evans and the next thing they know, they’re married. He ended up late in his life buying this club. It’s part of this museum, The B.B. King Blues Museum, and it’s authentic. You feel the spirit in the room. It’s amazing.
We turned it into a recording studio, which had never been done. We got all the guys together, and most of these guys had just met. Elvis’ guy turned me down on every record I ever asked him to play. His name is David Briggs. He’s played 1,000 number one records. He was the original muscle show. He’s got 1,000. He played with The Beatles, he played with B.B., but he was Elvis’ guy. He used to go to do the peanut butter and banana sandwiches in Denver with Elvis. This is how close he was. When he heard what I had written at home, I sent it to him. He goes, “Now we’re talking. Where are we going to record?” I said, “Here’s the other catch, it’s in Indianola, Mississippi.” He goes, “When do I get there?” He wouldn’t record with me in Nashville when I was there but he recorded this which is to let me know that I needed both feet in the Delta. He was finally moved by the whole thing with me. We got together. We filmed it all.
My son who’s a senior at Chapman University used an alias name, I think Noah Coffee or something like that. He said, “Dad, my first feature cannot be. You can’t tell me what my first kiss is, right? I’m going do this for you,” and he edited it and colored it and all that. He’s just finishing it. It was basically breaking every child labor law that was. He’s got way more talent than me. I tell you this kid has a Coen brothers’ mind in his own way, his humor. He’s very intellectual but he’s funny and witty. He’s going to be special. He did me a big favor by taking 400 hours of footage and going through it, and then go and film this other stuff. Delta had seeped in him so much, he had so much cool success late in his high school years with the Delta Band and the characters of the Delta Band on his canvas that he would paint. He knew exactly what to do with this. He turned it into a film that lets you get to know all of these players. It’s not some music video. You get the music but it’s learning about the history and how we’re coming together and literally having the beat. You cannot make a record together like this without really truly falling in love with each other. It’s got to be a love story at the end of the day. We had stumbled through this. We did and you see it. You see us go from not knowing each other to absolutely loving each other and then this record was born.
There are twelve tracks on this?
What is your favorite track?
There’s none. I think I love Wake Me from the Dead. It’s like saying which one is my favorite child.
Will you present one of your favorite child to the table right now?
The record does not ever happen if I don’t write this song. I really believe this got me going without me knowing. How can I not write this song as a kid? When I came back all the memories that were so visual in my growing up was in this song. I’m going like, “How can I not do it?” It goes a little like this, “Down, down, down, down at the liquor store, I saw you used to sweep the floor. Chew to death that cheap cigar, walking whiskey to the car. You dust off every bottom until each one shines. I still recall your small bowed head and this big white book shine at night. Johnny Lee showed his wife, she raised me most of my life. So proudly kept and cleaned the house in that store-bought cotton blouse. Didn’t care if it’s enough, sang about Jesus’ love. Tapped her feet to my guitar out of time just like I was. She stopped by the liquor store every afternoon at quarter to four to lend a pocket book and bread dollar-store sack, a quarter of coke, a slit six-pack. Give a shot at one of those Johnny Lee look and said I have had it on the cook for you umpteen kids and my sectioning house. I heard your brother’s getting out of jail. There’s tears in tobacco, they’re dripping off of my… For some while all this rules of Milton King cool, sonny boy would play the blues. Behind the liquor store he had seen so much hurt spilling out of those drinks, eye stained cataracts, a heart full of heart attack, his mansion made of shotgun shack. Nearly 90 years of not looking back.” Then it goes on. The funny thing is all those pictures were the only thing that I ever saw growing up. How come it takes me 40 years to write it?
It’s a process. The journey is the destination. That’s what it’s about. Steve, this has just been magical. It’s been incredible. It’s been so much fun to get caught up with you again. Where can people find you?
SteveAzar.com. You can get sick of all my music and everything, but Steve Azar & The Kings Men is the new site. You can see the trailers for the film. You can really get into this project. We had a couple of hot tracks on iTunes for a couple of weeks including Down at the Liquor Store. This record to me is everything I dreamed of making. It’s a lot of fun to record. This is the biggest piece of me that anybody will ever get at this point. I’m really excited about this project in general. I would love people just to stream it. That’s the way that things are now. That would be good enough for me. I just want you to have it and give it a shot.
Are you guys going to go out on tour?
Yeah, we hope to be touring. We’ve got shows done over a series of bicentennial show. We headlined Mississippi Night at the Grammy’s. We’re doing the last bicentennial. We’re celebrating our 200th birthday obviously in Mississippi. Hopefully, we’re going to do that. We’re just working on touring. I have a feeling this band’s going to need to tour a lot overseas. Although this record obviously has blues stained all over it, it’s still my writing with the way we all played together. It’s a sound that you’ve never heard. This kind of music is big in so many other places besides United States so I have a feeling we’re going to end up needing to do that. Walter King who played the Angels of Harlem on YouTube, he’s in the band, Elvis’ guy, Randy Jackson’s brother, Herman. The list goes on and on. This is a crazy band.
It sounds like fun. It sounds like a great locker room you put together.
It’s a good huddle and a good locker room with the big guys.
What my goal is, I really do want to come out and see you, see this band, and see these new songs and listen to some of the old stuff maybe. What an inspiring podcast to do with you. One of my takeaways was we heard a lot of beautiful songs, but we’re also talking about how you went through these difficult periods of time in your life where you’re about to give up and you didn’t. You kept the journey going. Something happened and then something happened and then something happened, and the next thing you know, you wake up and here you are today.
Mark, you get it. We all have our obstacles, whether personal relationships. With me, obviously music has been personal. With you, football was personal. We want to hold on to some of those things. The only difference with you and me is you don’t need to get hit anymore or hit anybody. You’re climbing a different mountain literally. I just love what you’re doing. It’s so inspiring. I’m going to become a fan of your podcast. To me, it’s very important that people get a chance to understand what you’ve gone through and your guests. I’m so excited about this. It’s where a point in our lives where we really want to take advantage while our minds are still strong and our body’s strong enough to keep going, so it’s a blessing.
I get so much value out of talking to these different people and hearing their stories. Everybody’s story is so much different and unique. Some people I know, some people I don’t know, some people I haven’t talked to in a long time like you. At the end of the day, it’s just fun to hear their story and it’s a story of determination and getting to the end game. Actually, it’s never an end game. It continues to go on. You’re going to get to the end of this road to a certain point with these guys and then your greatest work I’m sure is still ahead of you.
I’m deep into my next record writing it. I’m just so fired up about it. I’m in a place right now that I just wish I could explain. I used to go, “That artist is getting soft and he’s losing his edge.” When I had kids, I got my edge and I found myself. They continue to push me, “Dad, you’re better than that.” I go, “What?” He goes, “You should go listen to what you’re writing.” I’d go out and find. It’s amazing how inspirational they’ve become for us. Now it’s just reversed. Although I like to give the locker room talk to him all the time, I’m known for that, and they’re like, “Oh my god, here he comes.” I can’t help it. My famous quote to them every time they’re leaving is, “Head on the swivel.” I’m so used to this stuff that you and I both grew up around, you obviously at a different level, but I use those little sports terminologies because it’s the only way I can relate. I drive my kids crazy but now it’s reversed. Now, they’re inspiring to me and I’ve found myself because of it.
The thing I say to my kids literally every day and every single time I say this, they roll their eyes is, “It takes a little more to make a champion.” You think about that and if you want to achieve greatness, you’ve got to go the extra mile.
You have to work harder than the person you have to.
Steve, thank you so much. You’re a rock star. You’re a country star. You’re just a star of a person. I just really appreciate with tremendous amounts of gratitude you did this podcast with me.
I love it. It’s just been great catching up and I love you. Thank you.
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