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No Game Plan, Ever: Steve Poltz On The String

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Michael Weintrob
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The first two times I interviewed Steve Poltz, they were short conversations, with an audience, and as I say in this week’s String, the experience was like losing control of a high pressure hose that flapped in every direction. The word enthusiastic is too mild for Poltz, who brings a child-like wonder and hyperactive delight to seemingly everything. And in the six years he’s lived in Nashville, the veteran folksinger has made himself an in-demand co-writer and a good east side neighbor too. He’s an artist and a guy nobody speaks about without smiling.

This conversation, held in his writing room on the second floor of his beautiful home in the curious bends in the road they call Little Hollywood for its collection of Spanish style homes from the 1930s, was instigated by the release of his latest album Stardust And Satellites on Compass Records. Of course Poltz comes off rather differently in the studio than he does on stage, because his act is so tied up in his manic raconteurship. But we get a glimpse of that side on the opening song “Wrong Town.”

“You’re about to watch a show starring me,

I don’t know what you’re about to hear or see

The truth is I have no plan at all

There’s a good chance that off this stage I’ll fall”

And on it goes with a portrait of his life chasing too few dollars from town to town singing for crowds of a few to a few thousand with the same driven commitment. The fast-moving wordplay was co-composed with Nashville’s Anthony da Costa. And as he does, it mixes tall tales with nuggets of truth. And one of the most important truths to take away from the song is that line about no plan. It’s literally how he approaches the stage.

“Yeah, no game plan. Ever. I'm the worst about it,” he says. “I just have to have faith that it's gonna work. And if it doesn't, it's even funnier. And it took a long time to learn that, because then you say, ‘I thought that was gonna work so good. But it didn't, did it?’ And that makes them laugh harder, because you're admitting how bad you failed. Which is even funnier.”

The songs are often just as amusing, as with the slinky and slightly surreal “Can O’ Pop,” which uses a man’s lusty advances toward his lady to dash around the country seeking out delicious place names, from Opelousas to Gatineau. Poltz is proud of having rhymed Albuquerque with herky-jerky, and he says that working with a drum groove he’d asked for from Wood Brothers drummer/keyboardist Jano Rix, the complex lyrics poured out. Rix and Oliver Wood produced the project out of their Charlotte Ave. studio.

“I'm more of a feel writer,” Poltz says of his confident first drafts. “And then later on, I go, maybe there's something better. I always said my head's like a snow globe at the end of the night, and all the snow is just there. In the morning, it's all settled, and everything is much clearer when I wake up. Then I'll look over the song again and go, oh, this could change, this could change.”

Canadian by birth, Poltz grew up and became an institution in southern California, specifically San Diego. His taste for the wacky side of folk music was inspired by Dr. Demento on the radio and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk” in 1972. His post-college band The Rugburns became an area institution, but he set out as a solo artist after seeing Wainwright perform live and after he tried a completely freeform performance trying to come down from an unexpected mega-dose of pot brownies. He had a wild burst of good fortune co-writing “You Were Meant For Me” with his close friend Jewel in the mid 90s. And he’s earned a reputation in the years since as one of folk music’s most exciting and hilarious performers.

We talk about it all in this delightful hour of radio conversation.

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Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.