Steve Azar should have listened to Albert King.
The blues great came up to the country singer at a festival about 15 years ago. Let’s let Azar tell it from there: “I’d just got off stage from playing, and Albert King walks up to me. He goes, ‘Hey, you got it. Where ya going with it?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Nashville.’ And he said, ‘Oh, the Devil goes to Nashville.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I see it: Boy, you are going to have one hard time. Yours is going to be a long, long, long journey.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll get it done in a year.’ ”
History has proven the prescient King to be right, as Azar’s career has been one of stops and starts. The Mississippi native, who will play Wednesday, Oct. 11, at Ushuaia in Orono, has gone through four songwriting companies and is now on his third record label since 1991. He developed severe vocal problems in 2003 and underwent surgery in 2004.
One lesson Azar has learned over the past 20 years is that one sure way to get things done your way is to do it yourself.
“I’ve taken control of my music,” he said in a phone interview from his Nashville home.
Azar got out of his deal with Mercury, for whom he recorded the 2001 break-out single “I Don’t Have to be Me (‘Til Monday),” and started his own Dang Records label. He set to work in his home studio recording and producing the songs that would go on “Indianola,” which is due out in January.
“I was playing all the instruments on it,” he recalled. “It’s the first time I spent time doing that.”
Mercury executives kept changing the tracks he sent them, much to his chagrin.
“I knew the record I was making [at home] was the one,” he said. “I have young kids [age 10, 8 and 5], and they have to be convinced to like something. But they liked what I was doing.”
Citing the example of urban performers, Azar said technology and the Internet allow artists to break away from recording companies and make their own way.
“Technology has allowed us to take music into our own hands, and that’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “People will listen to what they want to, and know where to find it. So I don’t think the big labels are the future. Also, I don’t agree with their philosophies, how they quit so soon on a record.”
“Indianola” is the sum of what Azar has learned musically both over the past 15 years in Nashville and while growing up in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenville. His father owned the state’s first legal liquor store, and Azar admired the blues artists who would perform behind the store, such as Sonny Boy Nelson, Sam Chatman and Little Milton.
The downside of “Indianola” is that Azar injured his throat recording the 80 or 90 songs he had written since his 2001 album “Waitin’ on Joe.” He developed a benign cyst on the left side of his throat (“It felt like someone was strangling me all the time”). It eventually began hemorrhaging. When he discovered that he couldn’t talk over the ocean waves in Florida one day, he decided to have surgery.
“I told my doctor, who was also a singer, that I was afraid of losing the grit in my voice that I’d developed over the years,” he recalled. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry. That comes from within.’ ”
He was singing again five weeks after surgery. It was during his recovery that Azar decided to get out from under the star-making machinery, or, as he put it, “to get off the bench and into the game.”
In addition to the upcoming release of “Indianola,” Azar has been busy with other projects. The video for that album’s first single, “You Don’t Know a Thing,” featuring hard-playing pro golfer John Daly. He wrote a song, “Dancin’ in the Clouds,” for the upcoming independent film “Americanizing Shelley” and will write the music and soundtrack for the independent film “The Delta Storms.” He will narrate and host the TV documentary “Second Crossing: The Mississippi Delta’s Landmark Bridge,” detailing the construction of the new US 82 Bridge near his Delta home.
Still, Azar is happy to be back on the road, both literally and figuratively.
“There’s 100 avenues to go down that lead to one destination – to play live,” he said. “I hate having to leave my family, but I love playing still. I’m really getting to live the dream.”
Tickets are available at all Bull Moose or Strawberries locations or at Ticketweb.com. For more information, call Ushuaia at 866-7700.