INTERVIEW: Steve Wariner "Guitar Christmas"

Steve Wariner has released eighteen studio albums, including six on MCA Records, and three each on RCA Records, Arista Records and Capitol Records. He has also charted more than fifty singles on the Billboard country singles charts, including ten Number One hits: "All Roads Lead to You", "Some Fools Never Learn", "You Can Dream of Me", "Life's Highway", "Small Town Girl", "The Weekend", "Lynda", "Where Did I Go Wrong", and "I Got Dreams", and "What If I Said", a duet with Anita Cochran from her album Back to You. Three of his studio albums have been certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for shipping 500,000 copies in the United States.

Wariner has also won four Grammy Awards: one for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, and three for Best Country Instrumental. Steve Wariner was one of only four guitar players in the world to be given the "Certified Guitar Player" (CGP) award by Chet Atkins (five including Atkins himself).

I recently visited with Steve about his recent release “Guitar Christmas” which includes the holiday standards “White Christmas,” “Silent Night,” “Winter Wonderland” and “The Christmas Song.” Wariner, who was born on Christmas Day, previously released one Christmas album on MCA Records, but this is his first all-instrumental holiday collection.

The album is comprised of different guitars for different songs, including a handmade Hascal Haile classical guitar, the Gibson Chet Atkins Country Gentleman model (1989), which had belonged to Chet, an Olympia dulcimer, a Tacoma Papoose, and Wariner’s own model Takamine acoustic guitar. The package includes Wariner’s notes on the guitars selected for each track. He also created the CD cover artwork.

Bev: Steve, always wonderful visiting with you. I was really intrigued by the description of each instrument used in the booklet for each song, what made you decide to do that?

Steve: For this project I decided to go ahead and list all that because I am asked that all the time anyway. I always want to ask artists that I admire what kind of microphone he uses and what amp etc., so I thought it would be fun to go ahead and list those things. So far the response from people has been very favorable.

Bev: Now did you choose an entirely different guitar for each song?

Steve: Yes, that is right. The whole theory on that was to do a project with some holiday and Christmas music that would be as if I was sitting in your living room playing in person, with no accompaniment, no tuning or fancy studio tricks; just a guy sitting and playing a guitar. What I also wanted to do was to bring out some of my favorite guitars. The way an artist would use a palette, I wanted to create a lot of different textures and tones, using different guitars for different tracks. It was a lot of fun to try to come up with the different medleys. Some of these are favorites and people will recognize the songs immediately. Some are songs from our childhood. When I was a kid in Indiana, the courthouse would start playing Christmas music out of the tower and you could hear it all over town; this harkens for me back to those days.

Bev: What made you decide to make it Christmas music rather than some of the other things that you do, like favorite songs or music that is strictly guitar without vocal?

Steve: I have always loved Christmas music. I have only done one other album of Christmas music which was one I did for MCA called “A Christmas Memory”, produced by Ralph Bannister. I love Christmas music; maybe because I was born on Christmas day! I guess that makes me a sucker for Christmas music. I thought it would be fun to do a project which was strictly solo guitar. I have been asked over the years by people who like guitar music to do a guitar record featuring Christmas music. I cut a couple of songs which turned out pretty cool, so I thought I would just keep adding a few more songs as the inspiration hit me. That is what I did over the summer. As the spirit moved me I would add another one or two. It is hard to get into the Christmas mood in the summertime, but it was fun and also at the same time a challenge. This album is a good background for wrapping gifts or baking or what ever you are doing.

Bev: You mentioned that you did this over the summer, how long did it actually take to do this?

Steve: I did this project over a period of about four months. I did not work at it full time, only when the mood would hit me. I was not in a big hurry because I was touring at the same time, but it was a fun project for me.

Bev: The songs are obviously old time Christmas favorites. Was it hard to come up with something new using something old?

Steve: The challenge for me was to come up with something with a little bit different slant. With that in mind for example; Jingle Bells, I got out my little miniature guitar that is almost a ukulele. It is called a papoose. It is a small guitar and I created a Hawaiian feel to it. I wanted to do a percussion kind of thing so you can hear me slapping the side of the guitar and my feet on the floor of the studio. In some places you can hear me taking a deep breath. You can hear finger squeaks and I left it all in the recording, because I think it makes it feel real. I love that you can hear all that stuff.

Bev: Like you said, with these common background sounds, it makes it feel like you are actually sitting in the living room with family and friends. Are there any songs on the album that mean something special to you personally?

Steve: Yes, I used Chet Atkins’ guitar, one that he gave me on a couple of songs. My dad had a Chet Atkins album when I was a kid and Chet performed “Winter Wonder Land”. I always loved that song. As a kid I would listen to that album and dream about what it would be like to be able to play like Chet Atkins. As it turned out, it was him that brought me to do my first record. I toured with him. So it was fun to redo “Winter Wonderland” using Chet’s guitar! I also used it for “White Christmas”. It was so neat and cool that he gave me that guitar years ago. So, yes, that is very personal. Then Chet came in and played with me on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on the album I was speaking of awhile ago, called “A Christmas Memory”. He did a counter point on that particular song that blew me away. I decided right then that I needed to learn how to do that. I used to say I stole it from him, but Chet said it was borrowed. I did my own version of it on this album using my Kirk Sand classic electric guitar. That is a tip of the hat to Chet. There are a lot of things like that which are personal.

Bev: The CD came out on October 12th so there has been a little time since it was released and today, what has been the fans’ reaction?

Steve: When it first came out there was a small amount of press in People Magazine about it. That week I got a ton of e-mails about it. I went to a Rangers game in Texas and someone down there had read about it. That whole week people were contacting me to talk about it. So that was really cool. I mean I can see where if it were a, quote unquote, a “normal album”. But this is a specialty kind of album, a Christmas album and not only that but guitar only album. I thought maybe I would start hearing about it around Christmas time. But I have already gotten a great positive response to it. I am really thrilled about that. I did not expect it this early.

Bev: Not only did you produce this project, but you also designed the artwork for the cover; are you still doing your paintings and lithographs?

Steve: I am, Bev, although I have not done any new lithographs for awhile. I have been working on a new medium for me. I have been working on an encaustic medium that uses a natural beeswax. It is a hot wax. You make your own paint. I have not done a lot of water colors. I did a painting for a friend of mine about three months ago. He is real sick and I did a painting of his home place where he was raised in Kentucky. I did that as a gift. It turned out real nice. That is the first painting I have done in awhile. It was done in pen and ink and watercolor. Other than that I have been working in this encaustic medium. It is really fun. It is totally different from anything I have done before so it is challenging. It is messy and sticky. I use irons and heat. I do big pieces. A lot of them are very abstract. You just sort of throw paint. Now that the weather has cooled down, I have done more of it. I love doing it. A while back Trisha Yearwood called me and commissioned (I say commissioned but I gave it to her) to do a painting for Garth for Christmas. It was an acrylic painting. They have some cowboy houses on his ranch that they refurbished. They are beautiful! They used to be old bunkhouses. So I did a painting of one of them. It is hanging in the bunkhouse now. That was kind of neat. She surprised Garth on Christmas morning with it.

Bev: Going back to the Christmas album, was it hard for you not to sing along and only play on this Christmas album?

Steve: Oh absolutely! Particularly on this project, I wanted to bring in a kids’ choir or I wanted to sing on a particular verse or this chorus, but the restraint has to be there. You are so accustomed to singing along with these songs when you hear them, on the radio or whatever.

Bev: I know what you mean. You do automatically sing or hum along when you hear the old well known melodies.

Steve: When I was recording I found myself tapping my feet. I tried to make myself not do it, but then I decided I would not worry about it. Like I said earlier, we left everything in, warts and all. There were some things I could have fixed with some studio trickery, but we never even used the click track. I told my engineer, Randy Gardner, “Let’s leave it real. It is what it is.”

I am really excited about the project and proud of it. It would have been easy to sing along with it but it is strictly acoustical. Artistically I like it because it is minimal without bringing in singers or flourishing involved. I look back on it now after we mastered it when it was finished, and think I should maybe re-do it. But then I think, “No, that is the cool thing about it, leaving it the way it was originally recorded without any touchups." As they say, you stir the batter too much and the biscuits will not rise.

Bev: Well, I am glad you did not change anything because I like the way it turned out. Are you planning to do any touring to promote the album?

Steve: Actually we talked about that but at this time I do not have any plans to do any touring. It would have been cool to go out do some dates or do a little Christmas tour. But I probably will do a few things around but not anything that I can speak of at the moment.

Bev: Where can "Guitar Christmas” be purchased?

Steve: Both on-line and in stores. It is available on my website as well as all of the major ones, and in all the major retail stores as well.

Bev: Now that this is completed, do you have another project in the works?

Steve: As we speak, I am working on another guitar project. It should be out in February. I believe it is February 18th and it is called “Guitar Laboratory”. I cannot even explain what it explores. I wrote all the songs, except for one. I re-cut Hank Garlands old song called “Sugarfoot Rag”, but everything else I wrote. There are thirteen songs on and we are almost finished with it. What is interesting is that I brought in my two sons to join me on this one. Both of my sons are very musical. The oldest, Ryan, is twenty three and tours with Leann Rimes right now. He plays a great guitar. My youngest son is an arranger and composer. He also plays piano. He is a dental/music major at Belmont. We all collaborated, each separately, on this album. I also brought in a few of my friends. It explores all kinds of music from jazz to pop to country. You name it, it is on here. There is also swing and gypsy jazz. This album is for the hard core guitar guys. They are going to really like this. It is all over the map. I play lap steel, and metal steel and so on. It is probably the most diverse thing I have ever done. And as I said it will be out in February.

Bev: As always, talking with you is such a joy and I am sure we will see each soon.

Steve: Same here. Great to talk to you too and thanks for your interest in this CD.

For more information on Steve Wariner visit

Interview by Bev Moser

Transcribed by Darlene McPherson

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