From a Jewel Video to a Folk Hero: Rediscovering Steve Poltz

The reason yours truly makes such a concerted effort to attend certain music festivals every year (and so many of them) is not because of the robust interest by readers to hear about some event they missed out on or had little desire to experience themselves in the first place. It’s because if you really want to have your finger on the pulse of music, you can’t just rely on streaming playlists or social media to keep you informed or introduce you to artists. You have to get out there in the field.

You have to get sweaty and dirty. You have to see what an artist does live, gauge the reactions of the crowd, and who the crowd is made up of. You have to travel 600 miles, spend too much money on greasy food cooked in an Airstream trailer, and come home blowing dusty festival buggers out of your schnoz. This goes for dedicated fans and music journalists alike.

Recently while attending Old Settler’s Fest in Tilmon, TX, I got the opportunity to reconnect with the career of singer and songwriter Steve Poltz. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of Steve Poltz before, because I had. It’s not that I hadn’t appreciated his music previously, because I did. He’d even sat in on an acoustic session a couple of years ago at a Folk Alliance showcase that Saving Country Music co-sponsored. I’d mentioned him in passing numerous times here at Saving Country Music too. But somehow—and by nobody else’s fault but my own—I’d lost connection between the old Steve Poltz, and the new Steve Poltz, and completely overlooked what a gem of modern music this guy has become, and has been for a long time.

Steve Poltz originally made it onto the radar of many in the 90’s when he paired up with eventual megastar Jewel. Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada, Steve Poltz migrated to California with his family, and eventually made his way to San Diego to attend college. Poltz started playing in coffee shops in San Diego as both a solo artist, and with his band The Rugburns. When Jewel showed up in the San Diego songwriter scene, the two became collaborators. Like the other singer/songwriters of the time, they were sort of like refugees in the midst of the grunge craze.

Steve Poltz and Jewel became good friends, and eventually, boyfriend and girlfriend. In fact, Steve Poltz co-wrote Jewel’s mega hit “You Were Meant For Me,” along with other Jewel songs. Yeah I know, “You Were Meant For Me” was kind of like the “Wagon Wheel” of its time—ubiquitous to the point of becoming annoying, even though ultimately it was still a really good song. Poltz even plays a big role in the song’s video.

After Jewel exploded with her now 12x Platinum debut album Pieces of You, Steve Poltz was signed to Mercury Records, and released a debut album in 1998. He also toured with Jewel, and played guitar in her band for a time. But creative differences resulted in Steve Poltz leaving Mercury, Sean Penn resulted in Jewel leaving Steve Poltz, and he started his own label called 98 Pounder. While Jewel remained a superstar and a household name, Poltz was perfectly content doing the singer/songwriter thing independently, and reveling in relative obscurity if it meant remaining in control of his music. Jewel remained in control of her own music as well, just at a much higher level of popularity.

Since then, and through many twists and turns, Steve Poltz has morphed into an bonafide underground folk hero. His songs work like kids songs for adults, similar to the songwriting legacy of John Prine. Poltz’s storytelling skills in the live setting rival or surpass the very titans of the craft such as Todd Snider. This is the conclusion anyone will come to if they find themselves in the audience of Steve Poltz, as I did recently.

He’s is much more than just a spitting image for Jimmie Dale Gilmore these days, he’s a modern day troubadour/soothsayer that will have you finding a new appreciation for life. And despite wearing a “Peyote” shirt on stage, he’s been sober for almost 20 years.

Since then I’ve been working backwards in time, catching up with all that I’ve missed from Steve Poltz. Among other attributes, he’s remains an excellent collaborator and songwriter for others, just like he was for Jewel. Poltz co-wrote the other-worldly ending track “Leaders” on the highly-regarded new album from Billy Strings, Renewal. He co-wrote the first song “Million Miles” on Molly Tuttle’s breakout 2019 album When You’re Ready with Molly Tuttle and Jewel.

There’s an untethered, whimsical, 3rd eye perspective to Steve Poltz’s music. It was always there to some degree, but it might have been exacerbated on October 22nd, 2014 when he had a stroke on stage in Wilmington, Delaware in the middle of a performance. Poltz was in the hospital for seven days, and didn’t play music afterwards for months. Luckily, he didn’t experience any loss of motor skills or speech. He just lost his eyesight for a while and gained a huge new appreciation for the Grateful Dead, and says he became much more sensitive to the world after the incident.

“I went blind,” Poltz explained in a 2017 interview. “And then when my vision came back, I couldn’t read. And then I was able to read again and get settled in my brain. And then after the stroke, I was in some guy’s car, and The Dead was playing. They just weren’t on my radar. Post stroke turned me into a Deadhead. It’s like layers of an onion you just keep peeling back.”

The same could be said for Steve Poltz. You can quickly fall into a YouTube rabbit hole by digging up old songs and performances, enchanted by his stories and the music that accompanies it, and then syncing them up with his dozen or so studio releases, or his continued work with his band The Rugburns.

But to get the full breadth of the Steve Poltz experience, it’s one of those things you have to experience live. There’s just no other way to fall beneath its full spell. Whether it’s a festival or a local show, whatever rigors it involves to get there, it’s worth the effort.

Because in life, like in music, you can miss a lot, including stuff that passes right under your nose, like how that guy from the Jewel video morphed into one of the most entertaining musical storytellers of our time. So make sure you take the time stop down, and really pay attention. Otherwise, you might miss some of the greatest gifts of life, like the music and stories of Steve Poltz.

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