Self-taught at an early age, Wariner was discovered at age 17 by country singer Dottie West, who recruited him for her road band. He then toured with Bob Luman and Chet Atkins, who was then the president of RCA Records Nashville, and who signed him to a deal in the late 1970s.
While his first few singles faltered, he scored his first hit in 1980 with "Your Memory", which led to Atkins firing him from his band. Wariner's career on RCA accounted for two albums which amassed a total of eleven singles, but only one — "All Roads Lead to You" — went to #1 on the Billboard country charts.
A move to MCA started a radio hot streak that lasted throughout the end of the decade. While sales were not exactly stellar, he amassed eight more #1 hits in this stretch and several more Top 10s, building a mellow, understated, guitar-driven blend of country pop. Unlike most acts of his day, Wariner was allowed a high level of creative control, often writing and selecting his own material in addition to playing lead guitar.
The 1990s saw a shift to Arista Records Nashville for his first gold album, I Am Ready, buoyed by a cover of Bill Anderson's "The Tips of My Fingers". However, followup releases fizzled out and it seemed his radio career had ended.
...then in 1997, Wariner began focusing more on his songwriting, which led to hit singles by Clint Black ("Nothin' but the Taillights"), Garth Brooks ("Longneck Bottle", which also featured Wariner on backing vocals and lead guitar), and Bryan White ("One Small Miracle"), along with an unexpected success duet with Anita Cochran on "What If I Said". These led to him being picked up by Capitol Records for two commercially successful albums, Burnin' the Roadhouse Down and Two Teardrops. The former included his most commercially successful and most award-nominated song "Holes in the Floor of Heaven". While the hits soon died again, Black returned to the Wariner well for the duet "Been There", and Keith Urban cut "Where the Blacktop Ends". Since then, Wariner has continued to record on his own SelecTone label.
Wariner's music is defined by his understated, easygoing personality, smooth country-pop sound, and Chet Atkins-inspired fingerstyle guitar playing.
- Steve Wariner (1982)
- Midnight Fire (1983)
- One Good Night Deserves Another (1985)
- Life's Highway (1985)
- It's a Crazy World (1987)
- I Should Be with You (1988)
- I Got Dreams (1989)
- Laredo (1990)
- Christmas Memories (1990)
- I Am Ready (1991)
- Drive (1992)
- No More Mr. Nice Guy (1996)
- Burnin' the Roadhouse Down (1998)
- Two Teardrops (1999)
- Faith in You (2000)
- Steal Another Day (2003)
- This Real Life (2005)
- My Tribute to Chet Atkins (2009)
- Guitar Christmas (2010)
- Guitar Laboratory (2011)
- It Ain't All Bad (2013)
- All Over the Map (2016)
Tropes present in his work:
- Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Occurs in the second verse of "Two Teardrops", where the narrator is celebrating his newborn child and meets an elderly man who has just lost his wife.Last night I sat in the waiting room, a nurse walked in and gave me the news
"It's a baby girl and they're both fine."
An old man sitting not ten feet away just lost his wife, and he said to me
"You've got a brand new angel and I've lost mine."
- Break Up Song: "Drivin' and Cryin'" has him hitting the road to escape the memory of his lover.
- Christmas Songs: Christmas Memories and Guitar Christmas
- The City vs. the Country: Present in the first verse of "Crash Course in the Blues":To a boy from Indiana fresh off the farm
L.A. looks like heaven with its ever open arms
My mama said to watch yourself like mamas always do
Daddy said those city girls will walk all over you
So I hit the pavement running down on Hollywood and Vine
I got to town by seven and I fell in love by nine
She was a California angel wearing alligator shoes
She had that something that a poor boy can't refuse
- Epic Rocking: Nearly half of "Crash Course in the Blues" is Steve Wariner jamming with harmonica player Terry McMillan and fiddler Mark O'Connor. He also trades lead guitar runs on supergroup Jed Zeppelin's cover of Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" with Lee Roy Parnell and Diamond Rio's Jimmy Olander.
- Everything Is an Instrument: Some of the percussion on "Katie Wants a Fast One" was done on trash cans.
- Lyrical Cold Open: "Every Little Whisper"
- Meaningful Name: His middle name is "Noel" because he was born on Christmas Day (December 25). Naturally this gets lampshaded on Christmas Memories.
- Re-release the Song: He re-released his debut single "I'm Already Taken" in 1999.
- Scatting: He would sometimes sing syllables over his own guitar lines, such as on "I Got Dreams".