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Storyteller Inspired by Appalachian Heritage
Steve Free of Local 482 (Portsmouth, OH) is a storyteller. Singing and songwriting is simply his medium of choice. "I realized more people would listen if I put my stories in song form. So I took up music." That was 30 years ago. Now Free is an award-winning and internationally recognized guitarist, singer, and songwriter.
Free was first introduced to the guitar by his roommate in the Air Force, John Starkey, also of Local 482. "After the service we formed a little folk trio," says Free. "John is still with me all these years later as a bass player."
The men, along with several others, play together in Free's group The Band. When Free first began playing music he categorized himself as a folk singer. "The old straight acoustic Peter, Paul, and Mary sound. I wrote a lot of protest songs," says Free, who eventually signed with a record label, under which he has released three albums.
Free, who was mostly interested in telling stories through his music, was advised by the CEO of his label to mask his message. "He told me, in order to get a bigger audience, you need to write songs that people can relate to and enjoy. If you have a message, learn to lay it between the lines."
This advise helped Free to receive a platinum record for his record sales overseas, eight American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Popular Music Awards, and most recently, the Governor's Arts Award for individual artist in Ohio. Free was most honored by the Governor's Award. "To think you're being honored as the number one artist-not just musician-in a state is really humbling. It means a great deal to me, not just as a personal award but to be able to represent my area."
Much of Free's music is representative of his Native American and Appalachian heritage. "Although I do write songs about many things, my inspirations are pretty much my Appalachian and Native American heritage and the Appalachian Area where I am from." Free says it is difficult to categorize the type of music he plays. He has been described as folk, rock, country, Christian country, and Americana. "It is very eclectic and I have been put in almost any genre you can think of over the years," he says. "One of the best descriptions I've heard is, 'Steve Free is an Appalachian Jimmy Buffett.'"
Free also uses his music to educate. He has an education program for school-age children. The program focuses on the heritage of Appalachian and Native American cultures. Through music and storytelling Free shows the interconnectedness of man, nature, and spirit in the circle of life. "We must be respectful of each other and all living things," he says. The program uses a lot of Native American and Appalachian instruments and song styles to teach.
In addition to performing in the classroom for his educational program, Free enjoys performing in a variety of venues. He finds audiences at bookstores and coffee shops to be the most receptive to his original music. "I like for people to have fun, but also to be able to take away a little something they've learned," he says.
When he is recording in the studio, Free is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. "Because my songs are story songs and are in so many different styles and genres we take a lot time to record." Each of Free's alburns represents his growth as an artist and a musician. Free wants his music to touch his listeners. "I always say I want to do three things when I perform or when people hear my songs," he explains. "I want to make them laugh, make them cry, and make them think."
And, after all these years of being a professional musician, Free says he is still honored and humbled that people spend money on his CDs and to see him perform.
Free's membership with the Federation has helped him to continue accomplishing his goals. "The American Federation of Musicians means a lot to me because it brings legitimacy," he says. "Even in the lean years when you're starting out, to be an AFM member is something you can be proud of and inspires you to keep pushing on."
Free feels there is nothing harder in the music business than getting people to listen to original music. "Just like the (AFM) slogan says 'We are the professionals.' So you want to work at living up to a standard that places you a notch above the amateurs," says Free.
As for the future, Free just wants to keep making music. "I guess I want what all old timers in the business want, to just be able to continue to perform," he says. "You're only as good as your last gig. And you know, success is never final and failure's never fatal."
Free's fourth album, Coming Home, is being released in late spring or summer.
Copyright American Federation of Musicians Apr 2008