Instrumental music has fallen in and out of favor within rock realms over the better part of the past 60 years. Acts like the Ventures, Booker T & the MGs, Duane Eddy and Dick Dale made it a viable option for pop music fans early on, but as singers and songs began to dominate the charts in the mid ‘60s, mere melody wasn’t enough to sustain an appeal. Listeners depended on lyrics to convey the music’s full intent, and as a result, instrumental music was eventually confined to jazz and new age realms, ultimately to be banished from pop’s domain almost entirely.
When the instrumental outfit that calls itself Steelism released their debut album 615 to FAME in September 2014, they offered some hope that the sound would creep back to prominence. Indeed, they had a vast template to draw from; the Ventures, Booker T, composer Ennio Morricone, Brian Eno, and a vast number of film scores all played a part in the mix. The result was a sound with a myriad of influences but no one focal point in particular. The duo — comprised of Nashville-based guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and British pedal steel player Spencer Cullum — offered a remarkably varied and versatile mix of subtle yet seductive soundscapes that freely veered from jazz to minimalism to an experimental sonic palette, all designed to both entice and intrigue. Their follow-up album ism followed suit and brought them both critical acclaim and high profile appearances at some the most prestigious venues the nation had to offer.
At the same time, they soon found themselves as a much in demand backing band whose services were employed by a myriad of individuals, from established artists such as Wanda Jackson and Lambchop to the popular up and comers such as Johnny Fritz, Kesha, Andrew Combs, Rayland Baxter, and Ruby Amanfu, among the many.
Earlier this year, Fetzer ventured out on his own, working in tandem with legendary guitarist Duane Eddy who he had met during a session for Caitlin Rose, along with legendary session player Charlie McCoy and an entire 18 piece orchestra to record a solo single titled “Mendocino,” a song inspired by a road trip up California’s Highway One and released on his own independent instrumental label Fetzicon. (“I always wanted to write music that could accompany a road trip,” he reflects.) He followed that up recently with a four song EP titled Phases, an intriguing yet alluring blend of contemplative compositions and percolating percussive pieces that command attention even on first hearing. A vibrant melody is firmly etched in each of these offerings, and while there’s a hint of minimalism, some Bossa-nova and even avant-garde, there’s not a single song that fails to sway and seduce.
“This is a creative side path,” Fetzer explained while taking a break from a shopping excursion at Grimey’s, one of Music City’s more prominent record stores. “I started the label as an excuse to do all instrumental collaborations with different people. I had a set of tunes I was working on as my wife and I were waiting for our first born to arrive. So this EP was a group of songs I wrote and recorded at a certain time. The idea for the label is to release a series of releases throughout the year. I want to stick to singles and EPs.”
Naturally, Fetzer remains fierce devotee of instrumental music. “I’ve done so much work with singers and when you do the arrangements, it’s all about making music that supports the vocals and the melody line,” he says. “With this, it’s all about having a guitar part that’s strong enough to take you through the tune. I really find that very fulfilling. It’s not strange for me. I know with a lot of people, when they hear instrumental music on the radio, they often become confused by it.”
Fetzer lists The Ventures, Eno and Booker T as early influences, but he says that he was also drawn to blues and ‘50s jazz early on. He notes the thread that connected those styles to the music made today, but suggests that Nashville has been more or less immune from any continuum provided by those singular sources. He points out however that he has gotten some local airplay and that in itself might provide an avenue for tapping into that tradition.
It might be a nice time now to listen to instrumental music,” he reflects, alluding to the mindset caused by the isolation and contemplation that’s accompanied the pandemic. “You don’t need a lyric or voice to tell you how to feel. We’re all experiencing that for ourselves.”
In the meantime, Fetzer says Steelism is still intact and that the pair will record a new album once conditions permit. We have nothing in the works right now, but we’re talking about it. Spencer’s been working on his own album. He’s really into English folk music and he’s feeling inspired by that. He’s a big Bert Jansch fan.”
Nevertheless, Steelism still provides their bond and their musical mantra as well. Nevertheless, Steelism still provides their bond and their musical mantra as well.
“Steelism is the tool for everything we do,” Fetzer maintains. “It’s kind of our identity. There are certain studio musicians that make records with other folks but you always know that it’s them. That’s kind of our goal as well.”
Read the review of the album from Hal Horowitz.