Living on the Ship of Dreams
Internationally recognized southern Ohio songwriter/singer Steve Free has received numerous awards for his music, but he didn’t start out singing and entertaining – he started out in high school as a poet. When he joined the U.S. Air Force, he met John Starkey who was living in Philadelphia. Starkey, who played the guitar, encouraged Free to start putting his poems to music.
“I’m a songwriter and storyteller first,” said Free. “I love to write and when I got into the service, I met John and he said I should put some of the poems to music.”
In the late 1980s, Free signed with Fraternity Records, the label he continues recording with now. Free went to Philadelphia with Starkey and they put together a folk music group. That group dissolved and eventually Free came back to southern Ohio. After a while, Starkey moved here as well and is still performing in Free’s band. Free dedicates all his time to his music, performing throughout the Appalachian region and the United States.
Several years ago, Free went to Coffeeville, Kansas, to perform where the Dalton Gang ended their infamous careers in bank robbing. As a descendent of William Dalton, his fourth great-grandfather, he mentioned that his grandmother was a Dalton and a reporter found his family genealogy at the Dalton Defenders Museum and interviewed him for a story for the Coffeeville Journal, the daily newspaper.
With youthful enthusiasm and a zest for life, Free talks about some of his favorite experiences. Free, who has Shawnee Indian heritage, was invited to a Native American Art Festival in Arizona once where he and the other artists performed for a week. At the end of the week, there was a competition among student performers and the artists chose the winners who received scholarships. Although he has won numerous awards, one of his most memorable experiences was when he was able to give away scholarships to young Native American musicians.
“We gave over a million dollars in scholarships,” Free said. “We gave a four-year music scholarship to a Hopi boy who played the flute. That was exciting to me.”
Free has won nine ASCAP (songwriting) awards, a Grammy nomination for best Americana album, a lifetime achievement award for International Airplay, a platinum record and many other music awards. But, the one that means the most to him is the Ohio Governor’s Award.
In 2008, he received the Governor’s Award as an “Ohio Treasure” from the Ohio Arts Council. Free is an “Ohio Artist on Tour” with the Ohio Arts Council and he has developed educational programs for schools. Free is proud of his Indian heritage and in representing southern Ohio and Appalachia. In talking about his album, the Nashville CD Review “Power Source” said, “Steve Free is the embodiment of the American folk spirit. If our nation is a melting pot, then this album is its reflection.” He has charted more than 30 songs on the national, international, Americana, country and Billboard charts, including 15 No.1 songs, while remaining one of Music’s Top Folk Artists both in the U.S. and in Europe. The Kentucky State Senate recognized Free for his musical contributions to Appalachia. His music is played often in many countries. His newly-released album, “Ship of Dreams,” is on the Top 5 charts in Germany, New Zealand and Hong Kong.
When Free released “Just a Baby Boy” in 2004, he had no idea the song would go around the world, reaching the top of the charts and becoming a Christmas standard in many areas. He performs the song every year with the Portsmouth Wind Orchestra (formerly the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra) at its holiday concert in December at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts.
He received a lifetime achievement award from Airplay International in Nashville for his decades of international airplay. His song “Siege at Lucasville” about the 1993 Ohio prison riot was filmed by CBS TV’s “48 Hours” in 1996 and his song “Our Hometown” is featured in the 2013 PBS documentary “Beyond These Walls” about the murals in Portsmouth. In 2011, he had the Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards for “Sometimes a Song” and he was named “Emerging Artist of the Year.”
Free and his wife Susan Sammons-Free, who also performs with him, live in McDermott, Ohio, in Scioto County. Beginning in June, he will be performing the first Thursday of every month at the new River House Restaurant at the Holiday Inn in downtown Portsmouth and every Wednesday from noon to 2 p.m. at Market Street Café in Portsmouth. He also performs throughout the year at Moyer’s Winery & Restaurant in Manchester, Ohio. Visit his website for a complete schedule at www.stevefree.com.
Story and Photos By Phyllis Noah