Steve Poltz has an identity crisis. Is he a stand-up comedian with a guitar or one of the funniest musicians ever to set foot onstage?
“I’ve had people ask me about that, and a lot of times they’ll say, ‘I don’t even know what I just saw,’” Poltz said last week by phone from a tour stop in Memphis. “I like it when they say that, ‘cause I have no clue what I’m doing. I just do it. Just go up and let it be organic, and then see where it goes.”
It goes to some pretty strange places. For over two decades, the Canadian-born singer/songwriter, co-writer (with Jewel) of the 1995 hit “You Were Meant For Me,” has been crafting quirky tunes that defy genre description and wander, topic-wide, from the sublime to the unconventional.
“Trash,” from 2008’s “Tales From the Tavern,” falls into the latter category. Poltz extrapolates a bizarre scenario from Johnny Cash’s 1958 hit “Folsom Prison Blues” based on the lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Poltz wanted to know what awoke the killer instinct in Cash.
“So my thinking was, I’m gonna come up with this outlandish idea that the person is this trans person, and Johnny Cash has sex with them,” he says.
Told from the point of view of the man Cash shot, after the brief encounter in the dark in the park, Poltz has his unnamed, doomed protagonist quoting Cash’s homicidal rant: ”He said my name is Johnny Cash / And I’m drawn to the devil / And a magnet for trash. I’m gonna shoot you / To protect my lie / He said I was a freak / and it was wrong / and that he was gonna kill me / and put me in a song / he said if people ask I’ll say / I shot a man just to watch him die.”
It’s a stunner.
“It’s really a blast doing this song, ‘cause people get really mad at me about it,” Poltz says. But he’s not just going after a cheap laugh. Poltz says the audience reaction is tempered by the way he introduces the song.
“I should say, ‘This is a really sad song. There are some lines are funny, but you’re allowed to feel sad in it.’ At first, people think it’s gonna be really funny, and then it just gets dark. Like when he’s shot, and he’s in the ambulance, and the mother holds a funeral, and no one comes, and its like, Wow! Way to bring ‘em down.”
But Poltz doesn’t let the mood of that song, nor any other dominate his sets. “There’s no rhyme of reason for what I do,” he says. “Every audience becomes this formidable force which I need to overcome. It’s a seduction of sorts.”
Part of Poltz’s humor can be blamed on his Canadian heritage. He admits there may be something in Canadian water or in the air that produces stellar comedians. SCTV/Saturday Night Live alumnus Martin Short once said he thought it was because Canadians were exposed to Monty Python first.
“I should steal that,” Poltz says, and proceeds to do just that. “One time, I told Martin Short, ‘cause he was asking me why it was, and I said, ‘ Martin-it’s because of Monty Python. Think about it.’ And he was like, ‘Whoa!’ And a light went off in his head. And he hugged me, and he goes, ‘I gotta talk to Grant.’ And he called you. And you took credit. But that’s cool.”
But Poltz doesn’t need to steal funny ideas. His newly adopted town of Nashville provides plenty of inspiration.
“In Nashville, songs just start floating in thin air,” he says, describing the incident that triggered “Ballin’ On Wednesday,” from his latest release, “Shine On.”
Poltz went to pay his sandwich bill in a Nashville diner one Wednesday, and when he pulled out a hundred to pay a $7 tab, the cashier looked at him and said, “Ooh, ballin’ on a Wednesday.”
Poltz’s musical accompaniment sounds like Oliver Woods former jangle roots project King Johnson sharing a stage with the Kentucky Headhunters while Poltz shouts “Top shelf likker don’t get you there quicker / Let’s get Southern comfortable ...”
Poltz attributes part of the blame for his quirkiness for an unusual disorder he’s been self-diagnosed with, Oppositional Defiance Disorder.
“Yeah, ODD, its a little bit different than ADD. ODD is when somebody tells me not to do something, I go the other way. I just defy them because they said not to do it. The best way to get me to do something is to tell me not to do it.”
And just in case you thought he could be classified, Poltz pretty much shuts the door on the hope of ever being squeezed into any pigeonhole.
“I think it’s natural for us to want to quantify and organize things, put them in neat piles and stick them in specific genres and explain the unexplainable,” he says. “I think you’re right when you say, keep ‘em guessing.”