Steve Poltz, sober for 15 years and more active than ever
The former San Diego troubadour chats about his new album, living in Nashville, being a fan of Jack Tempchin and having a gazllion frequent-flyer miles on Southwest Airlines
Like many fans of the Grateful Dead, Steve Poltz was deeply saddened by the recent death of the band’s long-time lyricist, Robert Hunter, who co-wrote such Dead classics as “Box of Rain,” “Franklin’s Tower” and “Ripple.” But Poltz is surely one of the few Deadheads anywhere who credits having suffered a stroke as the reason he became a devotee of the iconic San Francisco band.
“I feel like the stroke slowed me down and I felt really sensitive to the world,” said Poltz, who had a stroke on stage in 2016 while doing a solo concert in Delaware. He had seen the Dead perform in 1979 and again on the band’s joint 1987 tour with Bob Dylan. But he did not become an avowed Deadhead until after his stroke, which saw him temporarily lose his ability to sing, eyesight and (once his vision returned) ability to read.
“After the stroke, I got into someone’s car and they were playing a recording of ‘Ripple’,” the now fully recovered Poltz recalled.
“I said: ‘Who’s that?’ And it was the Dead. I started reading their lyrics and it was like peeling back layers of an onion. Then, I started talking to friends of mine who know a lot about the Dead, and said listen to this 1972 version of ‘Morning Dew’ and this 1973 version of ‘Brokedown Palace.’ Now, I love a lot of their songs and I’ve performed at (former Dead bassist) Phil Lesh’s (Bay Area music venue) Terrapin Crossroads.”
Those attending Poltz’s Saturday, Nov. 2, Poway OnStage concert, which co-stars 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Jack Tempchin, can expect to hear Poltz do a Dead classic in between his many original songs.
“Since I had the stroke, I do at least one Dead song a night at my shows, much to the chagrin of certain fans of mine who don’t like the Dead,” Poltz, a former longtime San Diego resident, said. “But, hey, a lot of times, they don’t know it’s a Dead song!”
Earlier this year, Poltz released “Shine On.” It’s the 13th solo album of his career and his first for Compass, the record label founded and co-owned by Grammy Award-winning banjo player Allison Brown (who is a La Jolla High School alum).
It mixes earnest ballads, a bluegrass-flavored ditty called “Over the Top for You” and the country-rocking “The Pick-Up Song.” The Canada native spent part of this summer co-writing songs with Jewel, his former girlfriend and musical protégé in her Alaskan hometown of Homer. (He co-wrote her chart-topping 1997 hit, “You Were Meant For Me”).
A Nashville resident for the past three years, Poltz spoke with us from a recent concert stop in Waterloo, Ontario. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Has living in Nashville made you feel more, or less, secure about your musical abilities?
A: It’s been really inspiring. And it’s crazy, because there are so many choices and so many good players on every type of instrument. You can go see Vince Gill every Monday night for $15 at 3rd & Lindsley. You can go to the Ryman Theater, the Grand Ole Opry, the Bluebird Cafe. It’s humbling, it’s inspiring, and I love it. The creativity in Nashville is amazing.
Q: “Shine On” is your first new album in three years. Did you have the songs stockpiled, or did you write most of them after you knew you were making the album?
A: I always have so many songs stockpiled. I need to get in and record another album. Now that I’m on a record label again, it’s easier because I can say: “Oh, I want to make another record now.” It’s hard running your own label, as I discovered. I love the folks at Compass.
Q: Now that you live in Nashville, do you now own a pick-up truck? Or do you just sing about having one?
A: I barely even own a car. All my cars are rentals; I just sang about a pick-up truck. I love renting cars.
Q: Ever rent a pick-up truck?
A: I have and enjoy them. But I usually rent a midsize SUV. Rental cars rule, because they are all clean when you get them, and you can turn them in dirty. I also like chain hotels, because you’re just anonymous and I like to acquire points.
Q: What hotel chains?
A: Well, I have Marriott Platinum Elite and Hilton Diamond status. And I have a companion pass on Southwest, so anybody can fly with me — for only $5 — on every flight. So I’ve had a companion pass for the past seven years. My girlfriend, Sharon, is my tour manager, so she flies everywhere I go.
Q: Who drives the rental cars?
A: I do. I’m a control freak! I think I’m the best driver in the world and I don’t trust anybody else.
Q: You have a landmark anniversary coming up soon.
A: I’m coming up on 15 years of sobriety on Nov. 30. Fifteen! I can’t believe it.
Q: And you have another concert tour abroad in November...
A: I’m off to Australia again.
Q: Southwest Airlines doesn’t fly to Australia.
A: They don’t. So, we have to buy Sharon’s ticket.
Steve Poltz on Jack Tempchin
The two singer-songwriters will perform Saturday, Nov. 2, at Poway Center for the Performing Arts. Poltz has been an admirer of Tempchin — best known for writing the Eagles’ hit, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” — for decades.
“I first saw Jack perform at the old Casbah in the early 1990s, when they had a songwriter’s night and Candye Kane — rest in peace — was running a hoot-night there.
“Jack sang ‘Already Gone,’ ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ and ‘Slow Dancing,’ which freaked me out. Because I always loved that song, but to hear his version of ‘Slow Dancing,’ which had so much tenderness in his voice. I was seriously floored.”
“Then he started playing at this Brazilian restaurant in Leucadia and I’d drive up to see him. I’d go see Jack every week there, like I was on a pilgrimage. That was almost 30 years ago, and I don’t think he’s aged since then. He probably had a beard in third grade. He looks like he’s always stoned with wisdom. I adore him. My one regret is I still haven’t written a song with him. It’s on my bucket list.”
This is your life, Steve Poltz!
Award-winning troubadour Steve Poltz has led a decidedly colorful life. Based on his previous Union-Tribune interviews, we asked him to respond to three proposed song titles we made up, based on some of his real-life experiences.
Possible song No. 1: “The Day I Smashed My Head on Stage While Wearing a Gown and Had to Get 48 Stitches”
Poltz: “Oh, yeah. That happened at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. No, it was when we played at Molly Malone’s in L.A. (in 1994). I was wearing a dress, we were playing the song ‘Sweet Transvestite’ from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ and I ran out and smashed my head. That was also the day I signed a (song) publishing deal with (former Frank Zappa/Tom Waits manager) Herb Cohen, may he rest in peace, and his brother, Mutt.”
Possible song No. 2: “The Day My Now-Former Favorite Actor Stole My (soon-to-be) Famous Girlfriend From Me in 1995"
Poltz: (laughs). “And what’s the third one?”
Possible song No. 3: “The Day Elvis Hit On My Very Under-Age Sister at the Palm Springs Airport”
Poltz: “Which I’ve sung about, but not done an entire song about. In ‘A Brief History of My Life,’ I sing: ‘I met Elvis Presley’... wait, let me think about it. The line goes: We met Elvis Presley in the middle of the summer / He hugged my sister for far too long / Well, it felt kinda weird, but I would’ve pimped her out / Just to hear him sing a song. So I have kind of done a song about Elvis. My sister was about 13.”
Steve Poltz: “A Brief History of My Life,” with special guest Jack Tempchin
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2
Where: Poway OnStage at Poway Center for the Performing Arts, 15498 Espola Road, Poway
Tickets: $30-$50 (adults), $26-$43 (seniors, active military and students ages 13 to 21, $12 -$25 (kids 12 and under)
Phone: (858) 748-0505