JEFFREY STEELE: Atop the Observatory

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Jeffrey Steele has a place in Nashville, but it’s nowhere near Music Row. Sure, he’s close enough to the action to make a power lunch or a writing date. Most of the time, then, he’s definitely in Nashville. The question is whether Steele is of Nashville.Jeffrey Steele has a place in Nashville, but it’s nowhere near Music Row. Sure, he’s close enough to the action to make a power lunch or a writing date. Most of the time, then, he’s definitely in Nashville. The question is whether Steele is of Nashville.

You have to wonder, if success as a songwriter is how you measure it, then Steele is a vital presence in this town. He’s won coveted awards: BMI Songwriter of the Year in 2003 and NSAI writer of the year for ‘03 and ‘05. He’s a hit machine, whose songs have sold more than 17 million album copies. Five of his songs have earned BMI Country Awards. Throw a dart at the Billboard country chart, and odds are you’ll tag some superstar who has scored with a Steele song: Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Gretchen Wilson, Craig Morgan, Rascal Flatts, Montgomery Gentry, LeAnn Rimes, Van Zant, Trisha Yearwood, Trace Adkins, Randy Travis…

But visit his place, not far from 8th Avenue on the southern side of town. Pass through its front door and into the living room. Ignore, for a moment, the floor-to-ceiling wall of BMI awards on the wall to your right, and check out the living room to the left. Sunlight pours through tall windows. Elegant, cream-colored ceilings soar high overhead. In the fireplace, five candles, each a different color, form a peak on iron candlesticks. The walls are a soothing, soft green. Furnishings are spare: two deep maroon leather armchairs and a peach-colored couch, a low table and a wide viewing screen.

You get a sense-in this room-of Santa Fe, with maybe some San Francisco Victorian in the mix. Yet the sounds that come pounding from down the hall are Nashville all the way, an emphatic, four-on-the-floor groove hammered on an unplugged electric guitar, interrupted by bursts of excited conversation about some chord change or lyrical twist-sort of the composer’s equivalent of a prospector’s “Eureka!” after panning in some Gold country stream.

These are the sounds of Jeffrey Steele at work, emanating from a more enclosed but still spacious room. The walls here are a dark but lively yellow, more conducive to pumping it out than drifting off. A digital piano stands to one side. Guitars hang from the wall, like talismans of the creative spirit. And here is Steele himself, blond hair spilling to his shoulders from under a black skull cap, a G&L solid-body dangling around his neck. He cradles it throughout our conversation, sometimes punctuating his remarks with a choppy, staccato chord or a quick run.

The first thing you notice, of course, is that Steele is a southpaw. “Yeah,” he laughs, “but actually for about the first year that I played guitar, I couldn’t do anything because I was doing this.”

He spins his axe around, and suddenly he’s playing right-handed, though not very convincingly. “Then one day my brother goes, ‘Hey, you play baseball left-handed. Why don’t you turn it over?’ It had never dawned on me to do that, but he restrung it for me, and the next thing you know …”

And now he’s picking again with his left hand, as nature intended, with the intense attack and rhythm feel that’s a hallmark of Steele’s up-tempo performances.

There is, by the way, a moral to this story. It’s the same one that infuses practically everything Steele has to say about music in general and writing songs specifically. Just as he’s rockin’ on guitar because he heard and learned from his brother, he has become one of the top writers in the market mainly because he knows how to listen.

“I was writing a while back with Joanna Smith,” he says, speaking quickly as if words, like music, come almost in too much of a rush to handle. “She’s 20 years old, just off the boat from Georgia, so to speak, and she was nervous as can be. So I said, ‘Don’t worry right now about writing a song. You’ll find it. Just tell me your story. Where are you from?’ She started relaxing as we talked. At some point she told me she was going home for a wedding that weekend. Next thing I know, she says, ‘It seems like all my girlfriends are getting married.'”

Steele leans forward, grinning and pointing his finger toward where Smith must have been that day. “And I said, ‘There’s the song. We’re going to write it right now.'”

This is just one of dozens of stories that Steele can share. Listening to them, one begins to see the world differently, not as chaotic or indifferent but as a Lazy Susan turning day and night, loaded with songs begging to be written-all of them within reach of anyone who’s paying attention. The supply never runs out, at least not for this guy. He can be sitting in a doctor’s office or pumping through the wilds on his mountain bike; no matter where he goes, the music follows and refuses to leave him alone. “It engulfs me,” he sighs, happily.

And so it did even when Steele was a kid, growing up in Burbank, California-possibly the last place in America (outside of Brooklyn) that you’d expect a country scribe to call home. And in fact he did listen to all kinds of music there, from The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to big band standards that his mother enjoyed. By the time he’d figured out how to hold his guitar, he’d discovered Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings, and not long after that he was playing gigs around southern California for people who shared his tastes.

“Once you get out of L.A., it’s all farm country,” he says. “There are country bars all over the place, inside and outside of town. I met all these characters there and heard ways of speaking that you don’t normally hear in the city. The more I played for them, the more I came to see and hear the world as a songwriter. It opened my eyes to going where I needed to go, to do what I needed to do.”

He rose quickly toward the cream of this scene. Before long he was working with the area’s most respected alternative country innovators: Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, Gurf Morlix, and his own band, Boy Howdy, with whom he played bass, sang lead, wrote hit singles and won his first awards (including benediction from the California Country Music Association as Best Bassist and Best Male Vocalist in 1991). Their sound-kind of a macho variation on The Eagles-bore a California sheen, but Steele’s singing seemed to push against the polish, as if trying to break out toward Dixie and into the bosom of Southern rock, whose sweet harmonized guitars beckoned like sirens.

So after Boy Howdy broke up, Steele headed east. It was 1994 when he arrived in Nashville; its impact was immediate and enduring. “Being here dialed me for the first time into trying to say in two words what I might have said in three,” he explains, “because you’ve got only three minutes to sing something important, funny, or whatever, and make it believable. That just rubs off when you meet guys like [Craig] Wiseman, [Bob] DiPiero, or Big Al [Anderson], who’ve found their ways of telling stories. I remember Big Al telling me, ‘Don’t worry about the rhyme. Don’t worry about “moon” and “June.” Just worry about what you’re trying to say.'”

The lesson sank in quickly. Steele acquired a publishing deal, appropriately for this California transplant, at Windswept Pacific Music. His name began popping up among writer credits on the country charts; during one three-year run, as noted on, nearly 60 of his songs made it onto high-profile releases, many of them earning hit status as singles. What’s most surprising about all this is that Steele made his impact not by trying to fill the needs of the market but by simply letting the music take shape on its own and trusting that it would be appropriate for some artist out there. True, he did, for a while, try to accommodate industry people who told him to narrow his sound down to its most commercial core, or even to write with certain artists in mind.

“But then I had enough sense to pull myself out of that,” he says. “And at that point, I turned my weaknesses into strengths. I’d studied everything from The Beach Boys to U2 to Kristofferson, so I decided to keep stretching, because that’s how people find out who they are.”

He started performing too, a side of his work that he had neglected since leaving California. Over the past several years Steele has issued several solo albums, the most recent, Hell on Wheels, dropping in March 2006. More than any other disc in his catalog, this one reflects that duality of challenge and opportunity that Steele first confronted as a fresh race on Music Row. It’s not that the up tunes don’t rock; they do, beginning with the guitar lick that lashes through the opening cut, “Your Tears Are Comin’.” Nor do the ballads fail to touch that sweet spot of sentiment and sorrow, as on “Not That Cruel.”

The problem, if you want to call it that, is that these songs are so unlike each other. And Steele’s performance is so diverse-white-hot on “Your Tears Are Comin’,” warbled and whispered with a quivering falsetto on “Not That Cruel”-that they seem almost to have come from two different artists. Marketing, not quality, is the issue here.

“That’s because I sell each song,” he says. “Whoever the character is in a song, I put that across and wring as much out of it as I can. That’s probably why I’ve struggled for commercial success as an artist. The music industry is cellophane wrapped around boxes. You’re wearing a hat or you’re not wearing a hat. You sing ballads or you don’t. So I’ve come to terms with the fact that maybe a record deal is not what I should worry about. I’m more worried about the song. I’m more worried about when somebody comes up to me with tears in their eyes because of something I wrote that hit them hard. When I see 20,000 people singing ‘What Hurts the Most’ at a Rascal Flatts show, nothing can top that.”

Writing, after all, is for Steele virtually synonymous with living, each complementing and enhancing the other. When he recounts another writing session, whether with a star-struck newbie or a legend who’s made his way down from the Row to trade licks at Steele’s place, his stories convey something more than nuts-and-bolts lessons in craftsmanship. Strange as it seems, they bear the whiff of magic too-that ingredient that’s as essential as it is impossible to define.

“I was writing here with Eddie Montgomery one day,” he says, for instance. “He was waiting for his ride home, so he’d gone to my backyard to smoke a cigarette. Then he comes in, looks at me, and he goes, ‘Hey, man. Has anybody ever written a song called ‘Clouds’? Well, the jaded part of me came out, and I looked over to Tony Mullins like, ‘Is he kidding me? You might as well call it ‘Dolphins.’ But then it dawned on me that Eddie had lost his son and had recently lost his father too, and he’d been outside, looking at the clouds. So we ran into this room here, where we’d spent five hours that day and all we’d gotten was a really crappy song. In 15 minutes max, we had this song, ‘Clouds.’ We couldn’t even get our computers turned on before it was done. And I think it’s the best thing he’s ever put a vocal on.

“My point is that it’s never about money. It’s always the song. All the words and the music…they’re right in front of me. You just have to step back and observe.”

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