By Ava Sarnowski
Valley News Intern
With the Joshua Tree festival having just kicked off, this week marks the start of Steve Poltz’s BaHOOTenzie FolkFestival. Beginning on May 17th and concluding on May 19th, the longtime singer and songwriter, as well as his team of musicians cannot wait to teach folks about what it makes to create their own song. The name of Poltz’s festival pays homage to his beloved father and the silly-sounding word he spontaneously brought into existence when coughing from the Palm Springs heat. When his father was asked about the meaning of the word by Poltz, he admitted he had made it up! The word could mean whatever they wanted it to mean, and it was something they concluded on not long after being presented the question. It means, “many blessings, let’s go nuts!”
Having grown up in Palm Springs, Poltz recalls countless memories from his childhood. He’d deliver the Desert Sun newspaper on his bike. He worked at Market Basket near the Palm Springs mall and used to clean up people’s tennis courts. He’s also met the likes of Elvis Presley, Liberace and Frank Sinatra. He grew up heavily inspired by musicals as well. Some of these included Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and Godspell. He jokes that when his friends would be listening to Black Sabbath, he would encourage they put on Liza Minnelli. The likes of Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, were all mentioned as influences from early childhood. With one uncle in possession of countless Bob Dylan records, and another taking him to the Hollywood Bowl to watch various musicals, he had no shortage of inspirational music-based figures.
Poltz’s most recent studio album, “Stardust and Satellites” was released just this February. The Wood Brothers not only helped him make the album during the pandemic, but they also produced it. Having toured with them in the past, Poltz would go to their house for dinner at the time and spend time with them at their recording studio. Having recorded what would become the fourth song on the album for free, “Frenemy,” this led him into writing a plethora of additional songs. But Poltz was adamant of narrowing the selection down to 10 songs, as well as making sure that the runtime was at least 32 minutes. The outcome is an eclectic mixture of different-styled songs that focus on topics as loss, childhood memories and other simple joys. He wished for it to be akin to the records he’d listen to in the 70s, wanting to keep it to a set number of songs and not ask much time from those who listen.
“I feel like it’s hard enough to get someone to listen to even a whole song today. Our attention spans are different than they were when I was growing up. At the same time people are watching TikTok videos, they’re getting texts. They’re getting breaking news updates; their phone is ringing. It’s all kinds of stuff going on with these phones we have now. I’ve embraced it and I do enjoy it, but I also yearn for the days when people would listen to a whole record the way it was sequenced.”
Poltz wishes for everyone to write songs and find their own voice through creating. He says that making a song can be a personal and fun thing and believes in the idea that everybody can write a song. Even when they don’t think they have it in them. With encouragement, an established deadline, and a nudge in the right direction, songwriters will be on their way to creating. Poltz claims it will keep you younger and happier.
“A lot of the times we forget to create and make things up. When you see kids, they always remember to play. It’s a good way to pass the time. It’s a good escape.” Poltz loves seeing people get excited with their own creations. He thinks that the best kind of environment for songwriters is a safe one free of harsh judgement, allowing creativity to flow. As a musician residing in Nashville, submerged in a community of co-writers, Poltz doesn’t hold back in happily embracing his silly side. “We’re all idiots and dorks. If we remember to bring out our inner idiot, then we’ll have more fun and leave with a smile on our face.”
Poltz repeatedly expressed his eagerness for SongSchool, saying how he often encourages others to complete their songs and even gives them little assignments. The work he’s placed into BaHOOTenzie has proved to be a lot, but of the good kind. He’ll be available for many hours of the day, akin to the role of a lifeguard. At the raise of a songwriter’s hand, he’ll be there to discuss their piece and consider what it might need. As opposed to performing in a show, something of which he still truly loves, with this he thinks he’ll be more of service. He says that to watch the joy on someone’s face when they create a song and play it back for people is one of the coolest things ever.
Poltz finds it neat that they now have four teachers for BaHOOTenzie. He originally intended to be the only instructor, but soon realized that it wasn’t a one-man-job. This resulted in him reaching out to people and successfully upping the ante. He thinks everyone will feel that they’re being nurtured.
Jim Lauderdale is a Nashville stalwart songwriter in possession of an extensive resume. He has toured with the likes of Lucinda Williams and George Jones. Poltz and Lauderdale had been performing on Cayamo, a cruise ship that offers people with a journey through song while sailing out at sea. Lauderdale came up with the idea that they would write 15 new songs within just three weeks and do a whole show on the cruise ship. Their friendship sparked thanks to the ordeal and resulted in Poltz asking him to help teach. Nicki Bluhm will also be joining the festival. She is songwriter and performer from Nashville, as Poltz is. She tours all across the United States and plays with Bob Weir of Grateful Dead, as well as countless different people. Poltz says he begged her to join for her cool perspective and style of writing. Surprisingly enough, she attended Poltz’s song school in the past too! Finally, Dan Bern will also be in teaching at BaHOOTenzie. Poltz describes him as one of his favorite songwriters, and one of the first musicians to make his wish-list for this event. A man full of humor, with a voice akin to Bob Dylan during his early days. Bern was signed to Ani DiFranco’s label Righteous Babe and has done a variety of music for movies. After agreeing to join in, Poltz was said to be elated and eager to spend time with a unique soul.
With four teachers overall, there’s an even higher chance of attention being distributed equally between songwriters. People will be getting one-one-one time with someone who has actually done this for a living and put out their own records. With the SongSchool, Poltz also likes to discuss things beyond the scope of songwriting and performing. Topics such as how one would even go out and make a life of doing this, how they could get a gig or make a record. Important questions as these are sure to be addressed. After having performed for a few festivals at Joshua Tree, Poltz is aiming to make this FolkFestival a yearly occurrence. He hopes for others to get in on this opportunity.
While Poltz says that he misses the California vibes, as well as the ocean, he also mentions that there is such a scene in Nashville, one that is full of vibrant musicians. He believes that he is with his tribe of songwriters, people that feel as though they would have been into computer programming and living in Northern California during the 80s.
“All these musicians that were really good in their own towns all swam upstream to Tennessee and they’re living in Nashville,” he said.
When asked if he had any philosophical advice he could share for folks alike, Poltz responded. “I would offer this to anybody. I’m a creative outlet and go after it with reckless abandon. Even if you’re an accountant, whatever you are, take up painting. Learn to play guitar. Learn to play piano. Do something that is out of your wheelhouse and create. It will be a safe harbor for you at times of your life when you really need it, it will always be there for you.”