‘Sneaky Ole Time’ puts a story to the chart-topping music of country songwriter Paul Overstreet

By Bliss Bowen

Romance takes center stage in “Sneaky Ole Time,” featuring (from left) Amy Motta, Nina Brissey, Ken Korpi and Nicole Olney Photo by Ed Krieger

Romance takes center stage in “Sneaky Ole Time,” featuring (from left) Amy Motta, Nina Brissey, Ken Korpi and Nicole Olney
Photo by Ed Krieger

Study an artist’s body of work over a span of time, and more often than not recurrent themes emerge — though not necessarily a storyline with its own arc and dramatic momentum.

Yet playwright Stephen Mazur was charged with crafting just such a story out of the songs of Grammy Award-winning country songwriter Paul Overstreet.

The result, “Sneaky Ole Time: The Music of Paul Overstreet,” a musical directed by Michael Myers, premieres Saturday at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.

The Mississippi-born Overstreet is a five-time BMI Songwriter of the Year and multiple Dove Award winner who saw three of his albums perch high on Billboard’s country charts in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He continues to record and tour — sometimes with sons Chord (of TV’s “Glee”) and Nash — but he is probably best known as the songwriter behind hits for Kenny Chesney (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”), the Judds (“Love Can Build a Bridge”), Blake Shelton (“Some Beach”), Randy Travis (“Digging Up Bones,” “Forever Ever and Ever, Amen” and “On the Other Hand”) and Keith Whitley (“When You Say Nothing at All”).

The idea of creating a musical has been on Overstreet’s creative back burner since at least the 1990s.

“I always wanted to do it since my buddy Shel Silverstein told me stories about it all the time,” Overstreet explains during a phone conversation shortly after playing a concert at Gruhne Hall in Texas. “He’d be in Nashville all the time writing songs, and then he’d be going to New York to work on a musical. He was just the coolest guy. That always impressed me and made me feel like that’s what I’d love to be doing. And as a kid I loved doing plays in school.”

By chance, during a plane ride he met and befriended producer Yonta Taiwo, who introduced him to friends with the Ambassador Theatre Group, who in turn suggested he contact the Ruskin about achieving his goal of “putting drama with my songs” to “give them more potential.”

A little over a year ago Overstreet duly reached out to Ruskin Managing Director Myers, who set up meetings with three playwrights, including Mazur.

“He was such an interesting guy,” Overstreet says of his initial interview with Mazur, “plus he’d written ‘Liar Liar,’ which was one of my favorite movies that Jim Carrey starred in. I just liked him right away, liked his demeanor and personality and knew he was capable of doing it. I wanted the book to be a real stand-alone book. I didn’t want a story about my life; I wanted a story about life in general. And Steve really stepped up to the plate.”

Set in the present at a dive bar off a Tennessee highway, “Sneaky Ole Time” shows the lives of various strangers intersecting after a young man crashes his motorcycle. The Ruskin’s intimate atmosphere suits the story’s scope and milieu.

“The actors are so close to the audience, it’s like sitting on a front porch,” jokes Musical Director Cliff Wagner, a respected bluegrass musician who sings a number at the top of each act. “It’s very human.”

Twenty-two of Overstreet’s songs help advance the plot, including some new pieces composed specifically for the play. Overstreet has worked with Wagner and a trio of local hotshot roots musicians on tempos and feeling, and with the actors on the nuances of country singing.

“During the audition, there were so many actors that came through that were really, really great actors,” Overstreet recalls. “But I felt like they were a little distant from the country thing. So as much as I wanted them to be in the cast, their singing ability was just a little farther away from country than I thought I could tweak, y’know. Some of the people that are in the cast right now have adapted to country music. They’re not necessarily country singers; some of them are, but the ones that aren’t have really studied what we’ve given them, the songs and the tracks, and it’s working really well. We’ve really got a good cast.

“I’m really amazed when somebody reads a piece of the book and all of a sudden they come out and put this character to it. And it takes on a different feel with every actor. It’s really interesting to me to see how that works. I was so impressed with some of the actors. I could tell they were a little insecure about singing, but then we’d go into the reading part and they’d just kill it.”

Wagner cracks wise about how he got roped into building the set (“I basically lived at the theatre for the past month and a half”), but he drops the curmudgeonly humor and gets serious when appraising Overstreet’s songwriting.

“Paul is a wordsmith. And he’s really, really good at it. His songs are really well crafted. When he actually had his hits, in the ’80s and ’90s, at that time you had Randy Travis, George Strait and Alan Jackson doing a kind of traditional country that, as far as I can tell, has  pretty much disappeared. They’re just fantastic songs. It’s not just, ‘There’s my girl’ and whatever. …

“The main themes of Paul’s songs are the conflict between men and women, how they differ, and also relationships and marriage, etc.,” he observes. “Steve Mazur took all those themes and put them in the script.”

“Sneaky Ole Time” premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, at the Ruskin Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $30, or $25 for students and seniors. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 6. Call (310) 397-3244 or visit ruskingrouptheatre.com.