The Music Downbeat | September 27, 2011

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The Greenup Beacon

By Gregg Davidson


Sometimes an artist’s music doesn’t fit neatly into any category, it’s uncommon, but it happens.

However, record companies like labels due to the simple fact that it’s much easier and more cost efficient for them to market to a specific target consumer.

Like other modern corporate entities, they invest lots of capital on research in order to study, and therefore predict, the spending habits of various age, cultural, and ethnic groups.

Such demographics often determine where promotional dollars are focused and how to best package and distribute their wares.

Smaller independent or “indie” labels are less inclined to rely on such costly tactics and are therefore more accepting of the offbeat or avant-garde artist.

Southern Ohio artist Steve Free is one of those rare examples of an artist whose atypical mixed-bag of genre-blurring songs attracts a wide assortment of fans because he offers up something for nearly everyone, and he has managed to reach people all over the globe with a little help from the internet and his superior talent, all while maintaining an indie spirit.

He hails from Duck Run, a rural area north of West Portsmouth outside of McDermott, a small village just west of Lucasville.

Andrew Slye and his family bought farmland in a Duck Run hollow before moving to California where their son Leonard became the venerated singing cowboy and actor now known to the world as Roy Rogers.

Coincidentally, Steve’s family moved to Tucson when he was around three years of age, but returned after about six years.

While in Arizona, Free came to embrace his own rich Native American heritage (Shawnee and Cherokee) while tapping into the yet abiding spirituality of the people of the Southwest and their mesmerizing music.

Just after his return to Ohio, Folk music began dominating the radio airwaves and Steve found solace in its strong messages and tranquil melody lines, characteristics not that far removed from the Southern Gospel that his mother Florence Wagner sang in church.

As an adolescent, he played football at school, but when The Beatles invaded the US pop charts, the youngster quickly realized that music was to be an important facet of his life.

If he held any aspirations of pursuing a musical career after graduating from Scioto County’s Northwest High School, they were shelved when Uncle Sam came calling in the form of a draft notice.

Although it went against his political inclinations, he soon found himself a member of the U.S. Air Force flying missions over Vietnam.

It was during this time that he befriended his roommate John Starkey, a young guitar player from Philadelphia with similar musical tastes (and ancestral ties to Liverpool, hmm… that rings a bell).

After the war ended, the two forged a folk-rock act in the Philly area called Muddle Pudding (random words blindly culled from a dictionary) and performed covers alongside their own original material.

Largely inspired by Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, CSN&Y, and other vanguards of the protest movement, Steve’s lyrical content largely reflected the collective frustration of his generation concerning civil liberties, U.S. military policy, and environmental issues.

Philadelphia being a city renown for celebrating freedom of speech, they actually did quite well, managing to record several 45 RPM singles, two full length albums, and an EP.

As America’s interest in folk began to wane and gave way to pop stars, Motown artists, and slickly produced hard rock groups, Free packed up the guitar case and headed back to Ohio where he enrolled at Ohio University to study History and English Literature while Starkey remained in Pennsylvania and worked as a disc jockey.

It wasn’t long before Steve felt the itch to perform again and began principally booking solo appearances all around our tri-state.

Perhaps in part due to his course studies, he began to tone down the hard sell message of his subject matter, focusing instead on life’s small pleasures by taking on a celebratory atmosphere, but never fully relinquished his need to raise awareness on matters that he took to heart.

In the mid-1980s, some tapes that he sold to supplement his income fell into the hands of the late Shad O’Shea, the CEO of the historic Cincinnati-based label FRATERNITY RECORDS.

Liking what he heard, O’Shea contacted Free and within weeks the unorthodox songsmith joined the label‘s roster of new talent.

Since then, Steve Free has been creating his own indefinable style of music and bringing it to the masses through heavy touring, several CD releases, and a constant internet presence.

He has employed a number of talented side musicians over the years, but in the early 1990s, John Starkey relocated to Ohio to rejoin his former partner and together they embarked on putting together a full band with John switching from guitar to bass.

Describing Free’s voice isn’t difficult. It is flawlessly silky, impeccably bright and rich, but comparing it to anyone else is more of a challenge.

It brings to mind other smooth-voiced troubadours such as James Taylor, Kenny Loggins, Don McLean, and John Denver, yet is distinctly his own.

The Grammy nominated album SOMETIMES A SONG is Free’s latest release, and it is as diverse a collection as I’ve ever heard. Accented with angelic harmony vocals and lush orchestration that tastefully doesn’t overwhelm the production, it ushers you through one pleasant experience to the next.

While there is more to protest against today than ever, Free’s patriotism and spiritual insight remains intact as is apparent in the fast-paced opening track “American Highway”, a nod to our country’s natural bucolic beauty that Woody Guthrie or Johnny Cash would’ve been proud to call his own.

The song is proof that he hasn’t abandoned his folksy roots, as are the powerful cuts “Child Of These Hills”, a celebration of Appalachian culture that features a beautiful balance of 12string guitar, mandolin, and banjo; “Little Dove”, a tender ode to his grandchildren with nuances of somber electric organ and slithering violin; and “Autumn Leaves”, a cleverly-titled, melodic Paul McCartney-esque tune lamenting the onset of winter with chimes, classical guitar and warm synthetic vibraphone.

The collection offers up shades of prototypical country-rock stylings reminiscent of groups like The Eagles, Pure Prairie League, and The Band in tunes like the winsome sonnet “Just The Wind” and in the romantic innocence of “Do You Wanna Dance,” a tune penned by Bobby Freeman.

 “Rivertown” is a fiddle-driven toe-tapper in the Western Swing tradition that pays homage to Portsmouth and its small town charms like weekend football games, drive-in movies, church services, and cozy cafés. He even makes a reference to Ye Olde Lantern, one such eatery where he’s performed countless shows over the years.

“The Storm Passes By” and “Happy Little Song” are almost childlike in their gentle, sweet simplicity and uplifting optimism. While easily enjoyable by any age group, I could see either track finding good company on a children’s album.

“Two Hawks/Mitakuye Oyasin”, a song addressing the integral connection between man and nature opens with a subtle rushing wind and the shrill cries of a hawk in flight before quickly evolving into a flute-, guitar-, and mandolin-driven ballad complete with a call-and-response style tribal chant. If you close your eyes you can almost feel the warmth of the council fires and smell the peace pipe.

With bold strains of fiddle, mandolin, and harmonica, Free manages to tastefully infuse a mournful Native American dirge with the elements of a lively prairie trail song as a result of his reworking of the traditional “Eyes On The Prize”.

There is even a little smoky Jazz and R&B to be found in the demure Spanish guitar inflections, soulful sax, and vivacious electric piano passages of “Life Is A Melody”, and in the vigorous Caribbean calypso/cha-cha of “Fall In Love”, a ditty that Jimmy Buffet or America (the band) would envy.

Avoiding the bar scene, Free performs at festivals, fairs, parks, coffeehouses, and even churches where his massively popular sacred tune "Just A Baby Boy" has been integrated and reinterpreted into many holiday choral and musical presentations.

A new Christmas album slated for release in a few weeks will be the first time that the song will be available as part of a collection.

Another notable single is his “Siege At Lucasville”, a song that documents the 1993 Southern Ohio Correctional Facility’s bloody prison riots. The TV show “48 Hours” filmed one of Steve’s performances at Ye Olde Lantern and footage was featured in their aired report on the uprising.

Free is an eight-time ASCAP award winner for songwriting and has written 14 songs that have had chart success, including three that beat out such stiff competition as George Jones, Randy Travis, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Aaron Tippin, The Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs, and Billy Ray Cyrus to reach the #1 spot.  He has been previously nominated for several Americana awards and was awarded the highly-coveted and prestigious2008 Ohio Governor’s Award for the Arts.

His sons Dakota (a multi-instrumentalist who appears on SOMETIMES A SONG) and Nate also both play guitar. His wife Susan Sammons-Free helps provide harmony vocals and percussion accompaniment as a part of his full band that might feature any combination of musicians including Portsmouth guitarist/vocalist John Hogan; Cincinnati guitarist/mandolinist Darrell "Big Wolf" Delseno; South Webster drummer Wyatt Bates; Portsmouth drummer Dave Holt; Chicago percussionist Ronald "Blue" Miller; keyboardist John Craig; and of course his faithful friend Starkey.

For more info or song samples, go to and root around the many links or go to iTunes to purchase downloads.


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