Free has been notified he has won the Governor's Award for the Arts, making him the top artist in Ohio according to the Ohio Arts Council. On April 16, Gov. Ted Strickland, who, like Free, graduated from Northwest High School, will present him with the prestigious award.
Free found out he had won the award about three weeks ago, but was not allowed to release the information pending a news release from the council.
“They have a special committee that votes on the nominees, and you have to have six letters from different areas of the state in order to be nominated,” he said.
Free said there are six categories in which awards are given, but he is the first from Scioto County to win the individual artist award, and he was surprised because the members of the Ohio Arts Council are from Cleveland, Canton, Cincinnati, Columbus, Perrysburg and Lima.
Carl Daehler, executive director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts, said it is difficult to explain to people not involved, how important the award is.
“It's a big deal. It's a pretty significant award, and it's hard to let the public know that is not connected with it,” Daehler said. “Steve is equally at home with all audiences. He is just as comfortable with our symphony orchestra, or just sitting on the floor with the kids at the Children's Learning Center.”
Free said at first, he didn't fathom the importance of the award.
“I knew it was a big award, and I felt really honored. But I had won other awards, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) awards and stuff, but it never really dawned on me until Carl Daehler made the announcement at the Christmas concert.” he said. “We did ‘(Just a) Baby Boy' with the orchestra and there was a big crowd, and he (Daehler) made the announcement, saying, ‘People don't realize how big this is.' And to hear somebody else say it, it really got to me. For this year, I am voted the No. 1 artist in the state of Ohio, and that's not just a musician. That's painters, sculptors, writers, I looked it up, last year's winner was a dancer.”
Daehler said the amazing part of the story is almost every year the winner is from Cincinnati, Columbus, and the larger cities in the state.
Free said the only previous winners from any of the categories from Scioto County were Southern Ohio Medical Center, which picked up a patrons award, and the Southern Ohio Museum received the community award.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time is my feeling,” he said. “Because the people in the arts have been pushing for years to get somebody from this part of the state nominated. And now we have a governor from down here. And Ted (Strickland) said he didn't have anything to do with it, but these people know Ted, and they know he is from here and they know I'm from here. So I'm sure it helped.”
Free said he is scheduled to play at the governor's mansion on Sunday.
“I'm really looking forward to that,” he said.
Free said the awards event is elaborate.
“It will be at the Columbus Athenaeum, and I'm starting to get a little bit nervous. I thought there would be a big dinner and I would go up and get an award, and say ‘thank you,' But when the woman called me, she said there will be probably over 1,500 people. There's 800 dignitaries, including state legislators, and all the arts administrators, and then the public. It's a luncheon in the middle of the day, and they announce your name as the winner, and there's a big Jumbotron. They show a six- minute video about you. It's like an Academy Award, I guess.”
Free said he is like all other artists in the recording and performing industry, in that he remembers his early influences.
“I guess like all kids who grew up in the '60s, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, people like that. That got me interested,” he said. “And then I got in the service, and I met one guy, who is still my bass player. He's from Philly (Philadelphia, Pa.), but he's moved down here and over the years we have played together. He and I started playing the guitar, and I really got more into the folk music, music that says something. So then we got out and we started a band in Philadelphia, and it was really protest type stuff, and then over the years I kind of morphed into someone who more or less writes about the area I'm from.”
Free said the favorite song he has written is the perennially popular, “Just a Baby Boy,” a Christmas song he recorded along with a children's chorus, now featured on a holiday CD, with artists such as Randy Travis and Diamond Rio.
Free said there is no category for his music.
“But one of the best ones I've ever heard was a radio station in Cincinnati, and a newspaper in Point Pleasant, W. Va., where we played a couple of months apart, and they both said the same thing,” Free said. “They said, ‘Steve Free is good-time music. He's an Appalachian Jimmy Buffett.”
Anyone wanting information on the awards ceremony may go to www.oac.state.oh.us/events/
“He is the kind of guy you want to see win an award like this,” Daehler said.
FRANK LEWIS can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232.