Steve Wariner, an acclaimed country singer/songwriter who has had 14 number one hits and is a four-time Grammy Award winner, is being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He will be inducted along with the other new inductees—Shania Twain, Hillary Lindsey, David Malloy and Gary Nicholson—at the 52nd Anniversary Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala on October 30 at the Music City Center.
Wariner, who is in the veteran songwriter/artist category, popularized many of his own compositions, including “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven,” the 1998 CMA Song and Single of the Year and the 1998 ACM Song of the Year. His other top hits that he wrote are “You Can Dream Of Me,” “Where Did I Go Wrong,” “Baby I’m Yours,” “Precious Thing,” “I Got Dreams” and “Two Teardrops.”
Impressively, Wariner has received 11 BMI Million-Air Awards totaling 17 million broadcast plays. To his credit, the singer/songwriter/guitarist has over 50 charted Billboard singles, and is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, He has also been inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame, and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.
In addition to his notable credentials as an artist, Wariner has penned hits for other entertainers including Garth Brooks’ “Long Neck Bottle,” Keith Urban’s “Where The Blacktop Ends,” Clint Black’s “Nothin’ But The Taillights,” and Bryan White’s “One Small Miracle.”
Born in Noblesville, Indiana, Wariner scored his first big break at age 17 when he was discovered performing in a local club, and Dottie West convinced him to join her band. Eventually, his idol Chet Atkins hired Wariner as a bass player and signed him to his first recording contract at RCA Records.
We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Steve Wariner. He talks about his start as a songwriter, the story behind his hits “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” and “Longneck Bottle (which he performed with Garth Brooks) and learning to enjoy the marathon rather than the sprint of songwriting.
BC: Congratulations on your induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Steve Wariner: I didn’t even suspect that one at all. I had been involved over the years inducting other people—Mac McAnally and Jerry Reed. So I was very familiar with it, but gosh, that’s just dream stuff right there to think you could ever be in there rubbing shoulders with the likes of some of those guys. It’s pretty incredible, and I’m still walking on clouds here.
BC: You’ve had so many different hats you’ve worn over the years. When did your start as a songwriter?
Here’s the audio of Steve Wariner’s hit, “Holes in
the Floor of Heaven.”
SW: When I was a kid, I remember writing little poems in the third grade. My cousin Rick would stay at our house in the summer, and his mom, my Aunt Doris, who I adore, when she would come to pick him up, I would write her these little poems and give them to her. I’ve always loved words.
I would play shows with my dad regionally in Indiana and Kentucky. Every now and then he would do an original song, and I was blown away. How could he do that? It just fascinated me. As I got older, I tried to be like him. When I was about 14, I started trying to marry music with lyrics. By that time, I had been playing guitar a few years. My dad was a real good music teacher. I learned music pretty early, but then I started trying to put words with music, trying to be like my dad. My joke always is…Thank God nobody could ever hear any of those early songs. They’d probably be pretty rough. Obviously, they were about some girl that I met at school.
I remember getting my Music City News or my Country Song Roundup (magazines), and I’d always look for what the writers were doing—-like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Bill Anderson, Roger Miller—that’s the people I was always looking for. That world fascinated me.
BC: I’ve heard some older songwriters say they didn’t realize early on that someone could make a living as a songwriter.
SW: I didn’t think much about that. I was always on the path to be a player. I think when I was about 12 or 13, I already had it in my mind the focus that I was going to move to Nashville when I got out of high school, and I was going to make music. I never told anybody I wanted to be a star. I just remember saying I want to make music and I want to record. I’d listen to WIRE Radio up in Indiana, our local big station, late at night. I’d lay in bed and dream, and listen to a little transistor radio. I thought…when I get old enough I’m going to Nashville. That was around the time I had my very first recording session with my dad. He took me and my brother and a couple of musicians, and we went into a studio down in Indianapolis and recorded some of my dad’s original music. I was recording when I was in the sixth grade. I never thought much about making a living and doing it. I always thought that I wanted get on the road and be a musician. In the back of my mind, I thought I’m going to have to do my time paying my dues. Right our of high schooI, I went with Dottie West and worked for her for about three years.
Here’s the audio of Steve Wariner’s hit, “Some Fools
Dottie would come on the bus late at night, and she would ask me about my songwriting. She knew I was trying to be a writer. I really loved words and wanted to be a writer as well as a player. She kept a journal, and that’s the first time I ever saw anyone do that. She would show me how she would do it and how she would write. She would say, “What did you write this week?” I’d sing it for her, and she’d go, “Why did you say that right there?” I would go, “I don’t know why I said that.” She would test me and push me. That really made me start thinking and digging even deeper.
When I was 18, there was a song I did called “I’m Already Taken,” which was first recorded by Conway Twitty. I came in and played that for Dottie West on the bus. She really liked it and signed me to a writer’s deal with her company, First Generation Music. It was a big deal to me because they had Kris Kristofferson, Dennis Linde, Bob Morrison and Larry Gatlin. Dottie was a great teacher. I owe her a lot.
BC: Do you prefer to write by yourself, with a partner, or a bit of both?
SW: A bit of both. I love collaborating. It depends on who I’m with. I might try to bring a little heavier music on one writer maybe or another collaborator. Maybe I’ll lean on the lyric a little heavier. I always try to be ready to come in with some bits and pieces of something or an idea. I always try to be prepared. Even if we don’t come up with something, I love the hang.
I also like the alone solitude of writing too, and I have done a lot of writing by myself through the years. The times that I write by myself, they seem to be more of things that just fall out of the sky I call it. I picked up a guitar a couple of days ago and started playing this little Jerry Reed groove, and this song started popping out. At that point I grab my phone real fast or grab a napkin or something if I can’t get to my notebook. Get it down somehow. Usually nowadays, I use my phone and just record.
I always liked working with (legendary songwriter) Don Schlitz back in the day. He’s the first one I saw do it. I had a boom box, and he would push record and recorded the whole afternoon. I started emulating him too back then. It’s funny that stuff would just sort of fall out, mumble or stream of consciousness. It let you be more free where you start mumbling and letting things just happen. If you didn’t have that tape running, you wouldn’t remember what you did. It takes you to a different place when you know you have that safety net that you’re going to capture it. That was a great lesson. You learn a lot co-writing with these writers from a Bill Anderson to Allen Shamblin. The different styles and how someone writes. I love taking it all in and seeing their process.
Here’s the audio of Steve Wariner’s hit, “What I Didn’t Do.”
BC: I want to ask about some of your songwriting gems. One that was beautifully written was “Holes in the Floor of Heaven.” What inspired that song?
SW: I never want to jinx myself when I’m writing, even if I get super excited as I’m going along. Sometimes you get a feeling that maybe I’m onto something on this one. I never try to say anything about it. But this was one I felt good about it.
This was one I wrote with Billy Kirsch. Billy is a pianist and a wonderful writer and a smart guy. We have written several things. We would talk and have coffee. That’s how I like to start writing—start talking and maybe spend an hour just visiting. We were throwing around some bits and pieces and lines we had heard. That line was throwing out, “It’s raining. There’s holes in the floor of heaven.” We just started down that path.
Billy had a little keyboard and started carving out the groove, and I started that riff, and that set the pace. This was one we got back together a couple of times on it. It wasn’t fast. After lunch, my wife Caryn, who has been my publisher, is tough because I can’t get any lyrics by her. She’d go, “That’s good but not quite good enough.” She’s always great at pushing me and making me be better. I give her so much credit. I remember she came up to say hi to Billy. I said, “Caryn, I don’t want to be too excited, but I think we’ve got something really cool.” We played it for her and she went, “Wow, I’m loving that!”
We got together another day for the last verse and tied it all around. I remember Billy and I saying, “This is really good what we’ve got, but we can be better; we can beat this last verse.” We finally came up with the verse, “When my little girl is 23, I walk her down the aisle, it’s a shame her mom can’t be here now to see her pretty smile.” I love that imagery. To me, that’s like a mini-movie. It was a nice collaboration…we both were fired up.
I honestly have never had a song that I’ve done, that I saw the impact like it did immediately when I started playing it live. You could visibly see people moved on the front row. It’s a kind of sad song, but it’s really uplifting in a lot of ways too. A lot of people relate to it. Of all the stuff I’ve done, that one immediately had the impact with people sending me emails and letters. We took all those letters and corresponding emails of people and made a coffee table book that’s called Holes in the Floor of Heaven. It’s totally the words and emails of the people that sent these letters in.
BC: You wrote a big hit for Garth Brooks, “Longneck Bottle.” How did that come about?
Here’s the audio of Steve Wariner’s hit, “Lonely Women
Make Good Lovers.”
SW: Rick Carnes and I write a lot together. It’s funny…neither Rick or I like beer. He doesn’t drink beer, and I don’t either. So it’s funny that we’d write a song about long neck bottle. Rick had the idea. He had been working somewhere, and he said he was carrying long necks. He would carry about five in a row, and he said it was really ironic because I didn’t even drink beer. We threw out some lines on “Longneck Bottle.” We wanted to do the (line) “let go of my hand”… like you’re talking to these inanimate objects. I thought it was a tremendous idea. We started throwing out these ideas. Originally, it was way slower than the way Garth did it. It was almost more jazzy. I give my wife and publisher Caryn credit, because I did this little demo of me singing it. I played all the instruments, and I had a little lap steel on it. I didn’t even have anybody in mind to pitch it to. I just liked the song.
I played it for Caryn, and she said, “Well Garth ought to hear this. He’d probably like this one.” We knew Garth pretty well. She sent it to his house. Then he called me and says, “Dude, I love this song. We’re gonna cut it. Can you play on it?” I go, “Of course, I’ll play on it.” We went in the studio, and I was on Cloud 9 of course. I remember cutting this, and I was playing acoustic guitar, and they wanted me to play the solo. They said, “You play the first solo, and then steel guitar behind you.” We cut it, and it was just rocking. Garth was dancing all over the booth in there.
BC: What song from your career stands out that you’d like to talk about?
SW: I’ve got a couple that I’ll tell you about. I remember I was touring with Reba McEntire. We had just finished on the east coast of Canada, and we came back down through the U.S. and were doing a few U.S. dates, and then we worked our way down to the Southeast. I remember we were playing in Birmingham, AL, and I came off the stage and I walked straight to my bus. Somebody had been playing my guitar, and the capo was down at 4, and it was still laying on the couch of the bus. I remember I picked up that guitar and started playing this groove in G and capo at 4, and these lyrics started falling out of the sky. I started writing down the lyrics. By the time Reba had started her set, I had finished with this song. The song was “Where Did I Go Wrong” that I had a #1 with. I wrote that song in 20 minutes, and I always laugh about it. Man, I wrote that so fast. I had never written like that…ever!
Here’s a video of Garth Brooks & Steve Wariner performing their
hit, “Longneck Bottle.”
“I’m Already Taken” is an interesting song for me. The first half of that song really happened. If you recall the lyrics, “My little third grade hand wrote I love you” on a paper and sent it to a little blonde-haired girl. The girl wrote me back and said, “I love somebody else. I’m already taken. You spoke up too late.” Unfortunately, she wrote me back on the same note, and all she said was “I like [this other boy] and she wrote this other kid’s name. When I read that, I went Ooooh. That was the impetus of that song, and I remember playing it for Dottie West, and she really liked it. Now fast forward when I first met Chet Atkins. I played him that song, and he really liked it and wanted to cut it.
When we eventually got around to making records for my artist deal, Chet wanted to record that song, and we did. It was our first single. [But at the time] the song didn’t really happen as a single. Fast forward to 2001, and I’m on Capitol now, and I’m producing my own records, and I go into a pre-production meeting with these people at Capitol. They didn’t know this song or the history of it. I played it as a new song. I played “I’m Already Taken” and the whole room flipped out. They go, “You’ve got to cut that,” and I produced it myself. We put it out, and it was a big old hit, and they never even knew that I had recorded it back in 1977 as one of my very first sessions and was not successful.
BC: What’s it like in today’s songwriting world to get a song placed these days?
SW: I don’t worry about it…I’ve always had that attitude. I think early on. I worried about that stuff too much. I was lucky to have people down through the years that helped pitch some songs, and Caryn pitched some stuff that got cut. We were always lucky to send some things out and get cuts. To be honest, it’s easy to rest on laurels and go, “I’ve had a really good run. If I have stuff cut, I do.” I think a good lyric is a good lyric. I think a great song is a great song, no matter what era it’s in.
I want to keep busy. I want to write, and I still keep notebooks. I’ve got about three songs going right now, that I’m working on. Every now and then I’ll play it for somebody, and they’ll go, “I want a copy of that.” I’ve got a shelf full of things that I think if people can hear them, maybe they’ll like it. If they don’t, that’s okay. I’m still writing all the time anyway. I believe in my stuff, and that you have to let your voice be heard at some point. I have to write no matter what…I don’t worry so much about trying to fit in. Hopefully, somebody’s going to hear my stuff and like it. I do what I do and be me.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].