When we rang up Steve Poltz earlier this Spring, he had just woken up to some fun news. His inbox was flooded with friends sending him clips of Olivia Rodrigo performing a song he co-wrote at Madison Square Garden. He wrote that tune (Jewel’s “You Were Meant For Me”) more than 25 years ago, yet here it was popping up in one of the most famous concert venues in the world. Poltz, a forever good-natured person with a glass-half-full mentality, could only have a good chuckle over it. “All these people are doing covers, and some famous country person or somebody could do that song, cause they’re looking for songs that are real well known that taps into the zeitgeist, maybe in the 90s, and so,” adding that he could see the song making a comeback in some Will Ferrell movie where he’s “singing drunk at karaoke.”

It would almost be a little unfair if that song ends up being the one Poltz is most remembered for, as the longtime performer has an impressive repertoire behind him. 14 albums is nothing to scoff at, and it’ll be hard to narrow the setlist down for his upcoming Lawrence Arts Center performance on May 9. The Nashville-by-way-of-San Diego-by-way-of-Canada artist is constantly on tour, clocking in a staggering 300 days out of the year on the road. “I’m always in different areas,” he says. “I didn’t plan it that way, but the way my career is, I can’t say no to it. It’s like in ‘The Godfather’ where he says ‘Just when I think I’m out.’”

Steve Poltz Photo by Jeff Fansano

Poltz’s songs tackle a diverse set of topics, but the songs that hold sort of a self-deprecating humor targeting touring musicians (like himself) directly might be his most transparent (and, for many Lawrencians, relatable). Songs like “Folksinger” and “Wrong Town” pull from his experiences on the road and result in a fun little poke at the industry. “It’s like you’re constantly living in ‘Spinal Tap,’ I thought we were billed above a puppet show? One day you’re King and the next day you’re nothing, so it’s seriously humbling because every time you go in you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he half-jokingly laments. “On my tombstone, it’s going to say ‘Can you do one more post? We need more ticket sales.’ Then some city you sell out, and just when you think you’re getting a big head and killing it, you’ll go into a town and just be shut down and be all ‘God, nobody likes me in Iowa city. There’s only eight people here.’ Sometimes it breaks your spirit, but you keep going. That’s cool to see the progress and be in motion with your progress.”

Despite the insane number of shows Poltz hits up every year, he’s constantly running into little surprises on the road from his fans. “They used to be really young, I remember I looked out one day and I went whoa, when did everyone who came to see me get so much older. Then I realized, I’m 64 now! But I still feel like I’m in my 20s because I’m constantly out there. Rust never sleeps, so I keep moving,” he says. “If you’re in your 60s and you have people in there that are 75 coming to see you, they look a lot older. And so do I. A lot of times now they’re bringing their kids, or their grandkids. And, you can see it, because the grandkids look totally different, or their kids are into it. They go ‘Oh man, I used to come see you, my parents would drag me to see you. When I was nine years old at Java Joe’s in San Diego, and we saw you and Jewel play.’ And now they’re older and they have jobs, you know, they’re in their late 20s and they become fans and they come with their parents and they share that memory. So that’s really cool to see that happening and to see things growing. I just like seeing progress.”

While Poltz, like most musicians, trudged through the pandemic to get an album out (though he really only limited his shutdown experience to just one song, “Quarantine Blues,” rather than an album’s wroth), he’s looking forward to once again releasing new music with a new album on the horizon. This time, he’s embracing a changing industry and the opportunity for artists to hold a little more control over their work . “I know there’s a lot of naysayers out there. You have a lot of boomers who are complaining there’s no royalties anymore, Spotify doesn’t pay, and I get all that, but I still believe in the power of live music. And I believe that if you keep your nose to the grindstone and you keep working on your art, it means you have to wear all the hats,” he says. “So in a way what we have now is the gatekeepers are gone. There used to be a gatekeeper that would deem you worthy enough to get a record deal, and that gatekeeper would open the gate and let you in and get a producer, and they would be able to distribute your product… Now the gatekeepers are gone. Anyone can record anything on their own, on their iPhone, garage app, everyone can find someone with a studio, there’s all kinds of amateur recording people, everyone’s able to put stuff out online.”

Poltz admits, though, that this creates a problem of making new music more difficult to find. “It’s a needle in a haystack, and when you release a record, all you really get is two weeks. In the old days, you would release that record and you would get a year… Everything’s online and we’re looking at our phones. If someone sees it on your Instagram, maybe out of the 300 who liked it, ten are going to listen to it. How do you get them to listen all the way through? How do you get them to come out to your shows? You have to work so hard, you have to wear your marketing hat yourself, you’re your R&D, you’re your sales team, so you’re constantly promoting a show coming up.”

Poltz says the key to propelling your creative art in this new technology is to create your “tribe.” “I think the days of minting huge stars are over– The Beatles, U2, The Stones. I think a really good business model, if you wanted to follow something, is look how the Grateful Dead did it. They built a tribe, they allowed people to tape, they created this family, they went from town to town, people were making bootleg shirts, and spreading these tapes around. So it’s just a weird time to be a musician. But in a way, it’s great time because anybody can do it. Anyone with a laptop,” he says, before adding. “If you have some passion that you can even somewhat minutely monetize and live off of that, that’s the ticket, that’s the golden ticket of life. Then there are no vacations, your life is a vacation and you’re thinking about it 24/7. You have to find a way to live your life that brings people joy in an act of service. I truly believe that when I play my shows and people leave, they feel better. and they feel like if that idiot could do it, maybe I could it.”

Steve Poltz plays the Lawrence Arts Center on Thursday, May 9, at 7:30 p.m. as part of their Downtown Underground series.



Fally Afani is an award-winning journalist with a career spanning more than 20 years in media. She has worked extensively in radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and more.

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