When Steve Wariner visited Clint Black on a Friday afternoon a few years ago, he wasn’t expecting to co-write a song with his longtime friend.
He was just visiting to show off a new Gretsch Signature Model guitar that had just come out.
But when Black said, “I’ve got an idea for a song, but I don’t know where to go with it,” Wariner knew what they had to do.
“He was playing me some lyrics he started,” Wariner said. “I put my guitar in the case and said, ‘We need to finish this right now.’ I called Caryn (Wariner’s wife) at about 3 p.m. on that Friday and told her I’m not going to be home for dinner. It’s gonna be a while.”
Caryn told him to “do whatever you need to,” and the duo began finishing what would become “America (Still in Love with You),” the single for Black’s 2020 album Out of Sane.
Hours later, after the song was nearly finished but not quite wrapped up, Wariner looked over and saw that Black was on the phone.
“We’ve got a really good relationship, have been friends forever,” Wariner prefaced, “and I just made a gesture like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
What Black was doing was setting up a recording session. He asked Wariner if he could come back Tuesday to cut the record after booking a session and some players to record the song that wasn’t quite finished.
While that’s not the typical order of operations in recording a song, Wariner understood Black’s excitement for the song — especially once they wrapped up the task of writing.
“That song’s pretty unique in that, the whole first verse is talking about what you think is a relationship, a boy and a girl that’s been together so long, been through a lot,” Wariner said. “That whole first verse, you think it’s that relationship, but when you get to the chorus, it’s actually ‘America, I’m still in love with you.’ It really touches you.
“When Clint plays it live, there’s a whole screen presentation. It’s just incredible and very touching.”
Months later, in April 2020, the song had been released on YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes, and by June 2020, Black’s album (with two more songs co-written by Wariner) had been released.
While Wariner said it was a fun experience, he said it was far from the norm. He has seen many changes in the music industry since becoming a professional musician in the early ‘70s.
‘I Got Dreams’
Wariner first began writing songs at the age of 15. His father, Roy, was a songwriter and played his songs when Steve was a young boy.
“It just fascinated me,” Wariner said. “I knew as a kid, when I was playing with my dad and my uncle Jimmy, when I played those songs, I knew I liked them and was enamored with that from the get-go.”
Wariner grew up in a musically inclined family and performed with his father’s band. At the age of 17, he was discovered by Dottie West, an already well-established country music singer/songwriter who is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame, at the Nashville Country Club in Indianapolis.
After growing up in Russell Springs, Wariner was attending high school in Indiana, which allowed him to play at the Nashville Country Club during his junior and senior years of high school.
West was able to recruit him to become her bass player. While with West, Wariner got the chance to achieve goals he had only dreamed of, like playing the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, and some he had never even envisioned, like touring in Europe.
Wariner credited West with helping to mold him as a songwriter and encouraging him each step of the way.
“When we were getting ready to go on a bus trip, she’d say, ‘What’d you write this week?” Wariner said. “I’d show her what I’d been working on. She knew I wanted to be an artist, and she was really great about pushing me, helping me become better.”
Wariner was with West for three years, honing his craft along the way and eventually signing with West’s publishing company as a songwriter.
After Wariner’s time with West was over, he began touring and recording with Bob Luman, who had just a few years prior released his biggest single, “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” which Wariner would later go on to cover.
Wariner said that Luman called him in one day and wanted him to play bass on the album and to cut some of Wariner’s songs. Luman’s neighbor was going to produce the album.
Luman’s neighbor just happened to be Johnny Cash.
“I went into the studio, and we cut four of my songs,” Wariner said. “I saw Cash in the control room when I came in. I was kneeling down and played one of the songs for Johnny. He said, ‘I love it. Let’s cut it.’ I did that four times, and every time, it was the same. [Cash] would say, ‘Let’s cut it. I love it.’”
With three years of touring with West under his belt, Wariner had met a lot of famous people in the music industry, but working with Cash was “on another level.”
“I had done shows with Merle Haggard, found myself rubbing shoulders with Roger Miller, played with a lot of different Opry people,” Wariner said. “I’d been around a lot of stars — Waylon Jennings even came in and played guitar at that 2 p.m. session [for Luman] — but I don’t know if I’ve been around anyone like Johnny Cash.
“Every time he saw me after that, he was always really nice to me. June and him both were always real open to me coming up to them and talking. My Bob Luman days really initiated that and opened those doors.”
One of the doors it opened up was financially, earning enough money to build a house in Russell County for his parents, Roy and Ilene Wariner.
“When the checks came in from that project, I went out and bought some land in Sano and built a house out there,” Wariner said. “My mom and dad, they had never really had a place of their own.”
Wariner’s success also led to a meeting with one of his idols, Chet Atkins.
‘All Roads Lead to You’
Wariner worked with Luman for approximately a year and a half. Wariner’s “dream-come-true” opportunity to work with Atkins came about because, during a recording session with Luman, Wariner worked with another guitar legend, Paul Yandell. He was working with Atkins at the time and submitted some of Wariner’s demos to Atkins, which set off a chain of events that made Wariner one of the most recognizable country stars throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Wariner signed with RCA in 1977 and started working with Atkins.
His first single, which hit No. 63 on the U.S. Country charts, was “I’m Already Taken” — which would later be cut by Conway Twitty and Wariner himself would re-record and take to No. 3 on the same chart 22 years later.
Wariner’s self-titled debut album included three Top-10 hits on the U.S. Country charts — “Your Memory,” “By Now,” and “All Roads Lead to You,” which became Wariner’s first-ever No. 1 hit.
He followed up that success with his second album Midnight Fire one year later, in 1983.
This album produced two top-5 hits: “Midnight Fire” and the cover of Luman’s “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers.”
While he said hitting the top-10 five times in his first two albums was nice, Wariner yearned for more.
“When I was with Chet, I made a few records, but I didn’t understand until later that he was stepping out of power,” Wariner said of his time with RCA. “I was not too successful, at least not where I wanted to be. He told me, ‘You need to be with another producer.’”
Leaving Atkins — his childhood hero and someone he had dreamed of working with — wasn’t easy for Wariner, but Atkins insisted it was the right move for Wariner’s career.
“Working with Chet was great,” Wariner said. “It was a good move for my career, a good political move, and Chet knew that. He was really, really smart and was my mentor.”
Atkins was right.
Wariner left RCA in 1984 and signed with MCA Records and worked with Tom Collins, who was producing Barbara Mandrell and Ronnie Millsap at the time.
Wariner released two albums in 1985, which netted him three more No. 1 hits — “Some Fools Never Learn,” “You Can Dream of Me,” and “Life’s Highway.”
The hits kept coming for Wariner throughout the remainder of the ‘80s. In addition to recording the theme song for ABC’s Emmy-winning show “Who’s the Boss?” in 1986, Wariner released three more albums and had five more No. 1 singles: “Small Town Girl,” “The Weekend,” “Lynda,” “Where Did I Go Wrong,” and “I Got Dreams.”
“With MCA is when I really started having hits and being able to maintain and keep that going,” Wariner said. “It just took timing and being with the right people at the right time.”
While this would be Wariner’s last No. 1 solo single — his duet “What If I Said” with Anita Cochran also reached No. 1 in 1997 — Wariner achieved his only three certified gold records during the ‘90s: I Am Ready with Arista Records and Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down and Two Teardrops with Capitol Records.
Wariner’s greatest critical successes came after the 1980s as well, including all four of Wariner’s Grammy Awards. He also won “Single of the Year” from the Country Music Association and “Song of the Year” from both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music for his song “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” in 1998.
Even after starting his career as a recording artist, Wariner never forgot his roots as a songwriter, although he was focused mostly on his own music toward the beginning.
“When I started recording for myself, I was writing primarily for me,” Wariner said. “I never really thought about pitching songs for other artists, and I was lucky to start having hits that I wrote myself playing on the radio.”
Eventually, Caryn suggested that he start pitching songs to other artists.
Transitioning away from writing for himself to writing for other people again was a bit of a struggle at first, Wariner admitted, but a sage piece of advice from fellow country music singer/songwriter Bryan White helped him make a needed adjustment.
“Writing things that personally happened to me, that’s the biggest success I always had, things that really happened in my life,” Wariner said. “When I started [writing] for other artists, I was trying to aim it at specific people, whoever was hot at that time. I had a little success doing that, but Bryan told me that if you just write the best song you can, it’ll find its way to the right person.
“After I heard that, I stopped trying to aim it to people. Then, when I would write new songs, I would love a certain song but know it’s not for me, and sometimes I would be selfish and say, ‘I want to keep that one. That one’s for me.’”
Wariner has had his songs recorded by some of country music’s biggest legends, such as Twitty, Kenny Rogers and Don Williams, but some of Wariner’s top songwriting successes were Garth Brooks’ “Longneck Bottle,” sharing co-writing credits with Rick Carnes; Keith Urban’s “Where the Blacktop Ends,” sharing co-writing credit with Allen Shamblin; and Clint Black’s “Nothin’ but the Taillights,” sharing co-writing credit with Black.
“These days of writing, everything’s so different now, but I did really love that time of writing songs for other artists,” Wariner said. “There’s nothing like writing a song and then hearing Garth Brooks sing it.”
In recent years, Wariner is still active but has taken a break from doing major tours and recording albums, for the most part.
He recorded a Christmas album in 2021 — his first album since 2016 — entitled “Feels Like Christmas Time.”
While Wariner has continued writing, it has mostly been by himself and not as collaborative as in the past, although he still writes with Black whenever he gets the chance.
Wariner was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2019. He’s made several appearances at the Grand Ole Opry over the years — including some with no audience members in the building during the earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic — and he has an upcoming appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday, May 21, at 7 p.m. He also has a “solo mini-tour” in Texas from Sept. 13-17.
With all of his career success, Wariner points to his time in Russell County as having a major impact.
While Wariner split time during his childhood between Indiana, Louisville, and Russell County, he said his time in south-central Kentucky helped mold him into the singer/songwriter he would become.
“My roots are really deep in [Russell County],” Wariner said. “I love my mom and dad’s history there. I love looking at the history of our family in the county; it means a lot. I’ll always be proud of my Kentucky roots, and I’ll always be proud to be in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.”
Even as a young boy growing up in Russell County, Wariner dreamed of being a musician in Nashville. With some impeccable timing and hard work, he was able to make those dreams come true.
“All I ever wanted to do was be a musician,” Wariner said. “My dreams led me to working with Chet Atkins. Don’t be afraid to dream as big as you want to because it can happen. I’ve seen it. If a little kid like me from Noblesville and Russell Springs can make it, if you put the work into it, you can make it happen if you dream big enough.”