Return to the Table of Contents

Folk, country stars to salute Goodman, his music

November 6, 1997


Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman lived his musical life full throttle. Maybe he drew energy from his old man, who was a snappy used car salesman. More likely, he saw through the sandglasses of a 15-year fight with leukemia, a battle he lost in the autumn of 1984.

Goodman, whose best known work is ``City of New Orleans,'' was 36 years old when he died.

Goodman's legacy has settled into that of an expressive yet deeply enlightening songwriter. He danced through musical styles with grace and wonder. That's why friends like John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne and others should have no problem interpreting his material in a Nov. 13 benefit concert for the Old Town School of Folk Music's Capital Campaign at the Medinah Temple.

Artists will cover one of Goodman's songs and at least one of their own tunes. Proceeds from the concert will help the school expand into its new building at 4544 N. Lincoln, and establish a Steve Goodman scholarship fund for underprivileged children and adults to participate in Old Town School activities.

Like Neil Young's songbook, Goodman's music was full of adventures and the occasional misadventure. Goodman's exploration of forgotten '30s African-American string music equaled the beauty of his romantic pop songs. He was a master storyteller, a key ingredient in country music songwriting.

As a performer, Goodman's effusive stage presence is an acknowledged influence on Jimmy Buffett, who is slated to appear in a video tribute at Medinah Temple.

But when Goodman tried to go uptown with strings, slick arrangements and guitarist Jeff Baxter on 1980's ``Hot Spot,'' (his final project for Asylum Records), he couldn't shake the down-home roots of his native Northwest Side Albany Park. The result was a strained juxtaposition. Regardless of style, Goodman's songs held the spirit of a traveling circus. Medinah Temple is the proper place to honor the ringmaster of Chicago folk music.

``This will be a celebration of Steve and his music,'' said singer-songwriter John Prine in an interview from Nashville. ``Everybody's had time now. We're left with the good stuff.''

Prine said the tributes following Goodman's death were solemn. The first concert was held just six weeks after Goodman's death at the Pacific Ampitheater in Costa Mesa, Calif. The second one was presented in January, 1985, at the Arie Crown Theatre. It sold out in a then-record four hours. All proceeds benefitted leukemia research.

However, notable by omission in the Medinah Temple concert produced by Prine and Goodman's Al Bunetta Management/Nashville, are Goodman's seminal peers and pals: Bonnie Koloc, Ed and Fred Holstein and Michael Smith, who wrote such Goodman classics as ``The Dutchman'' and ``Spoon River.''

``Some of them were invited,'' said Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Old Town School. ``From the beginning, I told the people in Nashville we needed a local contingent to be involved. There was always the idea of having a slot where we would bring on the Holsteins and those folks and do a song en masse. By the time we got the show finalized, several of the artists said they'd be out of town. It didn't make much sense to go forward with it.''

As best of friends, the forward-thinking Goodman and Prine wrote several songs together: ``The 20th Century Is Almost Over,'' which featured Pete Seeger on vocals and banjo; ``How Much Tequila (Did I Drink Last Night),'' and ``If She Were You,'' which appears on Prine's 1986 ``German Afternoons'' LP. And Prine tipped in ``You Never Even Call Me by My Name,'' a huge 1975 hit for country outlaw David Allan Coe. Prine didn't want his name on the song because it poked fun at country music.

Prine recalled Goodman's energy. He said, ``Steve wanted to write every waking moment. Many times he'd have a song that seemed to me was a matter of him sitting down for another 30 minutes by himself and finishing it. In other words, he offered a lot of songs for me to co-write, but he already had the idea and I thought he ought to just finish them himself.''

Goodman's open ears changed Prine's career. Prine's acclaimed 1978 ``Bruised Orange'' album had been shelved once. Goodman was brought in as producer to rescue the project. Goodman understood how to weave and temper the wryness of Prine's vocals within his working-class lyrics. The Rolling Stone Record Guide called Goodman's production ``perfect.''

``Stevie was open and closed at the same time,'' Prine laughed. ``If he had his mind made up about something, he could be very closed. That was when it was his project, calling a halt to something. That's part of a producer's job, from what I understand. But when we'd go shopping for records, or just playing stuff for each other he was really wide open.''

Prine met Goodman in 1971 in the old Earl of Old Town (now the Last Act) dressing room, a dark, ramshackle space between the deep freeze and the sink for the dishwasher. ``I had played my first weekend at the Earl,'' he said. ``I'd heard Goodman had come in to see me at the Fifth Peg [on West Armitage], but we never met. When we did meet, we clicked right away.''

In a 1981 interview behind the ChicagoFest main stage, Goodman said, ``We didn't know what we were doing in 1971. It was right after John had recorded his first album. It was an exploding time for people here. Of course [Bonnie] Koloc already had been a star, selling out Mister Kelly's, but then both our albums came out [Prine's and Goodman's self-titled 1971 debut, produced by Kris Kristofferson], and we learned we just had to take things day by day. I still live that way.''

Goodman felt his career turn the corner in the summer of 1972 after Arlo Guthrie recorded ``City of New Orleans.'' Goodman's train song has since been recorded dozens of times, including by Willie Nelson and Judy Collins. In 1981 Goodman said, ``It was the first time I felt there was room for me in this circle in terms of doing this until I couldn't anymore.''

And how is Goodman viewed today in Nashville?

``Just last year, Fred Knoblauch came up with a song he co-wrote with Steve that I didn't know about and Al [Bunetta, Goodman and Prine's manager] didn't know about,'' Prine said with a laugh. ``It had never even been demoed. Trisha Yearwood cut it [the ballad ``A Lover Is Forever''] for her last record. Last year Doug Supernaw recorded `You Never Even Call Me by My Name.' I keep telling Al that Stevie's working more than me, or at least harder.''

A portion of the street in front of the new Old Town School of Folk Music facility, 4544 N. Lincoln, will be renamed Steve Goodman Way at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Performers for the Nov. 13 tribute will be on hand for the dedication. And the Old Town School will host a Steve Goodman Strumathon at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the school, 909 W. Armitage (773-525-7793). Everyone is invited to bring instruments and voices to play along with performers from the tribute concert. Goodman songs will be projected on the walls so everyone can participate. Admission is $10.