Since his 1978 recording debut, country guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Steve Wariner has shown himself to be a resilient talent. Within country music's inner circle, Wariner is respected, not only as a protege of guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, but as a consummate guitarist in his own right. The close to 30 top ten hits he has achieved during his career -- 12 of them, including "The Tips of My Fingers" and "Leave Him Out of This," climbing to the number one spot -- attest to Wariner's vocal ability and his popularity with country music listeners. And his skill as a songwriter has been attested to by such stellar country performers as Garth Brooks and the late Conway Twitty, both of whom have successfully recorded Wariner-penned tunes. Wariner's mellow tenor vocals have linked him with Glen Campbell and Vince Gill, and his reputation for durable hits on three different record labels has earned him a reputation around Music City as one of Nashville's "nice guys." Describing his style as a blend of country and pop influences, an interviewer in Country Guitar magazine attributes the reason for Wariner's continued success to his overall personality. "His personal manner translates into his playing and singing -- sincerity and affability are the qualities that come through most clearly...," the interviewer comments. "He manages, with his soothing guitar and voice, to establish a connection to places in the heart and mind." While some critics have noted that Wariner's relaxed style has been reflected by recordings that have rarely taken risks, all would agree that it has also reslted in his lucrative career as a recording artist.
Born in Noblesville, Indiana, on Christmas Day, 1954, Wariner was raised by parents Roy and Ilene in a musical environment -- each of the five Wariner children would become proficient in at least one music-related activity. Roy Wariner, who worked in a local foundry by day, fronted a small country band; by the time he was nine, young Steve was determined to join his dad on stage. Using recordings by Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Jim Reeves, and guitarists Atkins and Merle Travis as a musical backdrop, he tackled his father's Danelectro bass guitar, quickly mastering the instrument. A year later, with Steve now on bass guitar, the new Roy Wariner Band debuted at a barn dance in Russell Springs, Kentucky. They were soon performing on local radio and television shows. While he was a great fan of country stars George "the Possum" Jones and Merle Haggard, Wariner's absolute idol remained six-string guitar whiz Chet Atkins, the gauge against he would measure all other guitar players. Although the young guitarist did not know it at the time, the two musicians' paths were destined to cross.
From bass guitar, the musically inclined teen moved on to electric guitar, and then to drums, continuing to play with country and rock bands composed of various family members. Before he had even graduated from high school, 17-year-old Wariner found himself graduating to a higher level in the country music circuit when he was asked to open a show for the late, great country chanteuse Dottie West at the Nashville Country Club in Indianapolis. West was so impressed with Wariner's easy personality and talent as a singer that she offered him the chance to work as a bass player and backup vocalist in her touring band. Wariner was quick to say yes, despite his mother's concern. "I had never really been out of a two-state area," Wariner recalled in an Arista press release. "?My mom? told Dottie, 'Take care of my boy.' And Dottie put her arm around her and said, 'I'll be his mother when you're not there.' She really lived up to her word. She really was like a mother to me."
After three years travelling with West and her band, Wariner moved to similar duties in the road band for the late rockabilly artist Bob Luman. The bass guitarist would work alongside Luman -- the pair formed a publishing company in 1978 -- until fate intercepted Wariner two and a half years later, in the form of none other than Chet Atkins himself. Then still an acting producer for RCA Records, Atkins heard a demo recording of Wariner performing some of his original material and immediately approached the talented musician with the offer of a "singles" recording contract. Wariner signed with RCA in 1977. In addition to recording several songs with RCA, he would gain the opportunity to work alongside his longtime musical idol, backing up Atkins on tour and soloing with a few of his original songs during Atkins's shows.
Wariner's first recording to reach the number one spot on the country charts was "All Roads Lead to You," which RCA promoted as a single in 1981. The followng year marked the release of the artist's self-titled debut album, which placed Wariner's name on the charts once again with such hits as "Your Memory," "Kansas City," and "By Now," which crested in the top five. Steve Wariner proved the debut artist to be a talented songwriter as well. His songs have since been recorded by such artists as Garth Brooks, Lou Reed, Clay Walker, Lisa Brokop, and Luman. Other albums followed on the strenth of Wariner's debut effort: 1984's Midnight Fire featured several Top Ten hits, and RCA had enough confidence in its new artist to issue Wariner's first Greatest Hits album a year later.
Meanwhile, late in 1984 Wariner made the decision to switch recording labels. With One Good Night Deserves Another, he came under the tutelage of MCA producer Tony Brown, who also handled the career of successful country artist Vince Gill. Under Brown, Wariner was able to showcase his talents as an instrumentalist -- something that MCA had, surprisingly, refused to do in favor of promoting him as a vocalist. Wariner's fiery guitarwork on such hits as "Some Fools Never Learn" and "You Can Dream of Me" would send them blazing up the charts. His MCA debut effort produced several Top Ten hits and built Wariner's momentum as a country act. By the time Life's Highway hit record stores in 1986, Wariner seemed to be on his way: four number one singles and a Grammy award nomination for "That's How You Know Love's Right," with Nicolette Larson, were along his path. In 1987 Wariner teamed up with Glen Campbell for the hit duet "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," and the following year found I Should Be with You charting with Number One hits that included the title track, "Baby, I'm Yours," and "Hold On." Another creative recording project with MCA was 1990's Christmas Memories, a holiday recording Wariner made with Nanci Griffith, Chet Atkins, Maura O'Connell, and the Chieftans. In 1990, following the release of Laredo and Christmas Memories, Wariner switched labels again, this time signing with Arista Nashville. With the aptly titled I Am Ready, his first Arista release, Wariner finally managed to "go gold." Ballads like "The Tips of My Fingers," "A Woman Loves," and "Like a River to the Sea" sailed I Am Ready to gold-record status by 1994. Meanwhile, asked to collaborate on a project with fiddler Mark O'Connor, Vince Gill, and bluegrasser Ricky Skaggs, Wariner found himself slated with the group for a Grammy award for best country vocal collaboration for 1991's "Restless," a single included on Mark O'Connor & the New Nashville Cats. The Grammy win would be yet another first for Wariner. Heading into the 1990s, Wariner's name was rarely absent from the country music countdown; his fifteenth album in over a decade, 1993's Drive was carried forward by the momentum of I Am Ready, even though the artist had begun to shift his focus from mellow ballads to more rock-inspired rhythms. "I think I'm at a point now where I can take chances a little bit more and stretch out," the singer-guitarist explained to Jennifer Fusco-Giacobbe in Country Song Roundup. While Geoffrey Himes noted in Country Music that the ten songs on Drive "are all tasteful country-pop numbers with pleasant melodies, well sun and well played, but without anything distinctive to remember them by," Wariner sustained his ability to produce hits even while shifting his overall focus. The album produced the top ten hit "If I Didn't Love You," and the hit single "Drivin' and Cryin'."
No More Mr. Nice Guy, which Wariner produced and released in 1996, would be an even more dramatic shift for the artist. Composed of instrumentals rather than the radio-friendly country vocals that had fueled Wariner's career thus far, it showcased such dynamic "pickers" as guitarists Vince Gill, Bryan Austin, Leo Kottke, and Chet Atkins, fiddler Mark O'Connor, mandolinist Sam Bush, and innovative banjoist Bela Fleck, among others. The album was a shift from the kind of country-pop fusion Wariner had been noted for -- the rock, swing, blues, semi-classical, and jazz influences in No More Mr. Nice Guy put the album into a broader category than "country" and Arista was quick to market the album to guitar enthusiasts of all persuasions. However, it was also a gamble for Arista, as instrumentals rarely achieve significant airplay on mainstream country radio. While he had been in demand as a guitarist around Nashville for many years -- Takamine Guitars had, by now, issued their third "Steve Wariner" signature-edition acoustic guitar -- fans of Wariner's country ballads would now discover a new side to this Nashville "nice guy." Regarding No More Mr. Nice Guy, Wariner's attitude remained pragmatic. "I've wanted to do a project like this since I was a kid," he admitted to Deborah Evans Price in Billboard, but I was always realistic. I knew my voice and the lyrics were my bread and butter, especially in the commercial world." Yet, after 15 successful albums, he felt able to leave the commercial world behind for a while and devote himself to his first love: playing the guitar. Writing or co-writing every song on the release, Wariner's commitment to his music is obvious on every track, according to Edward Morris in Nashville Scene. On Nice Guy, Morris notes, Wariner "has created a refreshing departure from conventional country fare. It is inventive, mood provoking, enchantingly varied, and soulfully executed throughout." Country Music's Rich Kienzle agrees in a review of No More Mr. Nice Guy, commenting that the "near-extinction of ?non-bluegrass instrumental albums? will almost surely result in a revival someday soon. If so, Steve Wariner may well deserve some of the credit." Despite its innovations, recording No More Mr. Nice Guy found Wariner also retracing his own musical roots. "A guitar player is all I wanted to be growing up," he noted in an Arista press release. He fell into singing by chance, because the bands he played for early in his career were in need of vocalists. "I received attention for singing, so I did more of it," recalled Wariner. "I never took it that seriously because I always thought of myself as a guitarist. Now, after all the hits and everything, this record brings me back to where I started."
Wariner has also contributed his talents to tribute albums -- including Mama's Hungry Eyes (a tribute to Merle Haggard), Keith Whitley: Tribute Album, and Come Together: America Salutes the Beatles. In addition, he has been an active supporter of the American Heart Association and several other charities that aid children with life-threatening illnesses. Although Wariner has performed as far away as Grindelwald, Switzerland, and Kuamoto, Japan, he and his family spend their time at home in the quiet Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tennessee. As his career continues to mature, Wariner remains confident in his success as a musician. "?R?egardless of sales or success, I'm going to be making music one way or the other," he once told an interviewer. "That's the way I look at it. I love it too much. It's all I've ever done since childhood."
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