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Steve Azar Mixes Country, Rock, Mississippi Blues on 'Indianola'

Singer-songwriter Steve Azar started his recording career more than a decade ago as a Country singer in Nashville. He still lives in Nashville, but has moved from the confines of the Country industry's contemporary sound to a style that incorporates his rock and blues influences. Steve Azar recently visited the VOA Music Mix program, "Border Crossings", to talk about his latest album, "Indianola."

Steve Azar named his album, Indianola, after a small town in Mississippi, where blues legend Albert King was born, and B.B. King lived for a few years as a teenager.

Azar grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, near the Arkansas and Louisiana state lines. After attending college, he formed the Steve Azar Band with his brother Joe. The group was a regional favorite throughout the Southeastern United States, but Steve was looking for something more. He moved to Nashville in 1991. Two days after he arrived, he was offered four songwriting deals. In 1996, Steve signed his first recording contract with a major label. He says, at that time in his career, he was financially successful, but artistically unfulfilled.

"I tried to conform to a certain point, but at a certain point it sounds contrived," he said. "It sounds wrong and nobody gets it. The minute you have to go home and make an excuse and try to convince somebody into liking some music that you're doing, like my family, it's no good. And, with us [his band], we have a great time together. We have fun playing. If you're not going to have fun playing in the studio and have a fun time making the record, even if the songs are dark and deep. When that happens, I believe you have a better chance of translating to the listener. If there's no fun happening while you're doing it, I think you have no chance."

In 2001, Steve was at the peak of his commercial success with hits like "I Don't Have To Be Me ('Til Monday)" and "Waitin' On Joe." Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman appeared in his video to "Waitin' On Joe," a song Steve wrote following the death of his uncle. He promoted his album of the same name at a grueling pace, which led to vocal problems. In 2004, Steve underwent throat surgery to remove a hemorrhaging cyst.

The following year, Steve began work on Indianola. He drew inspiration for the songs from his early rock influences, as well as the local sounds he grew up hearing in the Mississippi Delta.

"Influences for me growing up were Bruce Springsteen and [John] Mellencamp and Bob Seger and the early Neil Diamond stuff and Jackson Browne," he said. "I love singer-songwriters who told their stories and went out and entertained like nobody else did, who sounded like nobody else did. A lot of my songs are about growing up down in the Mississippi Delta. I guess there's a certain particular amount of influences that I've learned from them, and it's meshed with my Delta blues influence. So, I'm a little bit of a freak."

"You Don't Know A Thing" was the first single released from Indianola. The song, which spent 17 weeks on the Country chart, is one of 15 tracks Steve wrote or co-wrote for the album. In addition to writing all the songs, he also produced the album, and used his longtime road band in the studio. Steve explains why it was important for him to have complete control of the project.

"Out of necessity as a songwriter, I think in anybody's situation in this day in age, you either sit on the bench and you wait or you take control of what's happening inside of you," he said. "When it comes out on paper and it comes out musically, what other person's better of letting it go to the next level because things don't change. It's exactly as it felt when you wrote it."

2007 will be a busy year for Steve. He'll narrate the upcoming documentary Second Crossing: Mississippi's Landmark Bridge, and oversee the making of the soundtrack for the feature film Delta Storms. In the meantime, Steve is opening arena concerts for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band.