Everything started clicking for The Sons Of The Palomino when Jeffrey Steele came across a couple of old songs he had written. “My publisher said, ‘man, these things are hit songs, if this was 10 years ago. It’s too country for country.’” That’s exactly what the musician and songwriter needed to hear to move forward on his project, an homage to the way country used to sound, how songs were once written—and how “they” used to play it.
“I always say ‘you’re standing on the shoulders of everybody else, and I wanted to pay tribute to those songs that I love and the style of music that I love to write,” says Steele. “It’s those songs that shape us into becoming who we are.”
Steele will directly tell you that Sons Of The Palomino’s music has nothing to do with writing a hit song, even though The Grammy nominated artist—who has 75 gold and platinum records and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame—has had plenty, working with everyone from Bill Ray Cyrus, Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, and Tim McGraw.
Despite his star-studded writing credits, Steele never fears hearing the words “nobody is going to cut this song” when it came to Sons Of The Palominio. In fact, he wants this reaction. For Steele, Sons Of The Palomino is not about popular country music. It’s about a simpler time and place… in country.
Following up their 2017 debut Sons of the Palomino, Steele carefully broke down nearly three dozen songs into an 18-track double album for their band’s second offering, Blue: 30, Volumes II & III.
“It’s purely a project of love,” says Steele. “Everybody always says, ‘oh, it’s my best work ever,’ but I truly feel that way. These songs are the best representation of my journey as a songwriter, and what I’ve learned from all the people I’ve been influenced by over the years.”
Inspired by the now defunct, intimate Palomino Club, plastered inside with photos of former performers like Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, the North Hollywood venue is where Steele’s father would would bring him from the age of 9 and where he later cut his teeth as a musician in the late ’80s, early ’90s as a bassist for the Tuesday night house band, Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance.
At the Palomino is where he’d play alongside a number of veteran musicians—Dale Watson and Buddy Miller, Redd Volkaert, or Jim Lauderdale on guitar, Marty Rifkin on pedal steel, and the late drummer Billy Block—on any given night. Occasionally at the Palomino, which eventually closed in 1995, some surprise guests like Mick Fleetwood, Dwight Yoakam, or Rodney Crowell would pop in. One evening, Eddie Van Halen showed up and got on stage.
Still a developing writer at the time, Steele was making his rounds in California country circuit and with his Palomino band, and those years were the true, musical essence that he wanted to capture with Sons Of The Palomino. “I was always really mesmerized by how great the lyrics were from someone like Merle Haggard,” says Steele. “Back in the day, I was so taken by country music. I was born and raised in Hollywood, so I was an old rocker and just got turned on to country, so my career was taking my rock and roll music and fusing it with the country.”
Initially, Steele wanted to bring some of the original Palomino crew back together after discussing the idea for Sons with his old bandmate Block, who passed away in 2015. Sadly, Block couldn’t be part of the project, but Steele started by recruiting steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, bassist Glenn Worf, and pianist Gordon Mote, because they were musicians who would ask “how would they have played this?” when pulling a song together.
Completed in 2015, the band’s self titled debut brought on a number of featured artists for the first self-titled release, including Emmylou Harris on “Outta This Town,” John Rich on “Countryholic,” Gretchen Wilson dueting with Steele on “Used To Be A Country Town,” Jamey Johnson’s crooning on “Whiskey Years,” and Vince Gill taking on “Nobody Does Lonely.”
“Having people like Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris, who heard some of the mixes and asked if they could sing on the first album, was the momentum for me to do something even better,” says Steele. “I wanted to thank those who influenced me and made me never want to give up on my dream.”
Returning with Blue 30, even the album’s title reflects a moment in time at the old Palomino. “Blue 30 was always that time of night, usually around 2:30 in the morning, when the last of the stragglers were hanging on,” says Steele. “I was breaking down my gear and the remaining girls and guys were there, hanging out, looking for some companionship, or some misery loves company.”
Blue 30’s 18 tracks move fluidly through old-school country roots to more traditional heartbreak balladry of “Luckiest Man Alive,” “Until It’s Gone,” and “I’m Hurtin Too” or the nostalgic croon of “West of California.” Songs give a direct ode to some of the greats on the more honky tonk “Willie & Waylon Haggard & Jones & Johnny Cash” while tracks like “Fingers” and “Honky Tonked Up” are those songs that would have made the Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance setlist back in the day.
Originally Steele had 30 tracks for Blue 30, and filtered them down to the final 18 by playing songs live and noting which ones held up best with the crowd.
“I just wanted to write songs that just captured all those eras—lyrically, musically, and sonically,” says Steele. “As I got into it, we just started getting a treasure trove of song ideas, and decided to just cut them all and made a double, album.”
The musicians Steele had on board also helped him hone in on the right tracks. “These guys played on all those old records, so I couldn’t get anything past them if I was off, or it wasn’t being authentic,” says Steele. “They would say, ‘hey man, that’s not how they would have done it,’ so that was also part of the process in choosing the songs.”
As the Sons were building Blue 30, it was all about how the songs flowed. “This wasn’t about a hit single or cutting an album to 10 tracks,” says Steele. “It’s about paying tribute, and capturing the essence of an era in a lot of areas, so it all threaded together like that. Let’s make it a journey through time, through country music from like the ’50s to the ’90s.”
Whether it’s Sons Of The Palomino, solo material or writing for another artist, Steele’s “formula” is always the same. “I still find the song in the moment, or whatever we’re passionate about as writers in the room that day,” says Steele. “Hopefully that will lead to a story. I still try to hold on to that.”
He adds, “When you’re writing every day, you have to make stuff up sometimes, but Sons Of The Palomino was a real lesson for me in the craft of songwriting. I want to honor that, and I want to honor what made these guys great.”
Working on another solo album, a follow up to 2008’s Countrypolitan, Steele has been dividing his time between Zoom writing sessions, keeping up his Instagram “Song of the Day,” and still dreams of getting back on the road with the band.
In the meantime, there’s Blue 30, which he hopes resonates, and reminds everyone of those simpler days.
“It’s honoring the tradition of all the forms of country music over the years, through all the eras—the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s,” says Steele. “Everything has changed and there’s been such great music, and influential music. I just wanted to try to capture it authentically the best way I could. For a guy that has had a career of tweaking the formula and the sounds, it’s been a great journey to just do it, the way they did it.”