As a songwriter, Jeffery Steele has written some of the biggest hits in modern country music history: Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy In Me,” Rascal Flatts’ “What Hurts The Most,” Collin Raye’s “Couldn’t Last A Moment,” and more. So it goes without saying that there are plenty of spare songs just lying around the Steele office. His publisher recently found five of Steele’s songs that were never cut, but there was just one problem with them – and it wasn’t about quality.
“These songs were so good, but we can’t pitch them anywhere because they are too country for country music,” Steele tells Billboard. “So we talked about maybe that we should re-cut them, and update the sound of them from a songwriting perspective. I just shook my head, and said ‘Man, these are country songs. I don’t want to do anything with them.’ Somebody then said ‘What we need to do is get this old-school style band – one that would have played on all of these old records – and make a record that sounded like it was made between 1965 and 1990.”
Steele and his friends did exactly that, and found that they truly enjoyed the creative experience of just making music. “After we did that, we got called do a gig for Jim Lauderdale’s Music City Roots show. It was a big ten-piece band, and I had the rhinestones on, and we all had so much fun. I just got really lit up by it, got inspired by it, and started to write more songs that were from that period – stuff that was from the period that I grew up playing in.”
As it turned out, the music took Steele back to the beginnings of his musical odyssey. “I played in a house band at the Palomino [in Los Angeles] back in the 1980s, before I was in Boy Howdy,” he recalls. “This was where I learned everything I know about country music. It was guys like Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, and Lucinda Williams, Dale Watson, and Billy Block, and we had a house band. Before Billy passed away, he wanted to re-create that house band vibe back in Nashville, and start playing gigs. Then, he got sick. But he had wanted to call it The Sons Of The Palomino. When he passed away, I played it for Jill, his wife, and told her what I was doing, and told her that the name would really capture what the record was about, and the history of the record. She gave us the blessing, and it just fit perfectly with what we were doing with the project.”
That self-titled project is out now, and it’s been the talk of Nashville. Comprised of steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, fiddle player Larry Franklin, Jerry Roe on drums, pianist Tony Harrell, guitar player James Mitchell, bassist Brad Albin, Steele says that everyone in the band is having fun – for the music’s sake, and not worrying about words like commercial, demographic, or radio.
“I remember asking the guys in the studio ‘Who’s going to care about this, really?’ Nobody even knows what a shuffle is anymore, and the history of country music has been wiped off the face of the town. I didn’t think anyone would care, but when we went out and played, I found out I was wrong about all of that. People do want to hear it. The cool thing about it is that it’s all original music. The songs sound like they are from another era, but it’s all new music. It’s an application of all that stuff.”
One song that Steele is very proud of is the brooding “Nobody Does Lonely Like You,” which features a cameo appearance from Vince Gill. Steele considers it as a cousin to Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” one of his favorite heartbreak songs of all time.
“It was probably about one o’clock in the morning,” he tells of writing the song. “I think I had written two songs that day, and my brain was just fried. I was with one of the guys that I produced the record with, and we were just talking about songs. I remember saying ‘Misery and Gin’ had to be one of my favorite songs – just the way the chords came back around, and how sweet they are – it would be so cool to write something like that. We were fooling around with some changes that were in that progression, and that line popped in my head – ‘Nobody Does Lonely Like You Do.’ We started writing the verses, then half the hook, and as the verses just started to evolve, the hook just fell out of me. We finished the song about four in the morning, and knew that this was what the record was going to be about. It was also a template for a lot of the other songs. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t standing on Merle Haggard’s shoulders a bit on that one,” he says proudly.
The album also features appearances from Jamey Johnson, John Rich, and John Anderson on “Authentic.” “When we got John on it, it went from a pretty good song to a pretty cool song that quick. Having his voice on it changed the whole dynamic of that song. That was originally going to be the title of the album. It inspired me to keep writing more songs that would fit that period.”
Most of the tracks on the album have never been cut, but one that has is “Independent Trucker,” which appeared on The Greatest Hits Collection II from Brooks & Dunn in 2004. “That was the first song I ever wrote with Chris Stapleton. My son, Alex, was on his skateboard in the back yard. He said ‘Dad, you’ve got to see the new wheels on my skateboard,’ I said ‘Well, what are they?’ He said they are the best, and they have these things called independent trucks on them. It’s the best thing for the wheels. I’m looking at it, and he’s telling me all about it. All along, I’m thinking ‘independent truck… independent trucker,’ I’m going to get a song out of this. I went in town that day, met Chris, and said ‘I’ve got this idea.’ We were just laughing and having a ball. I don’t think we ever thought the song would ever get cut. Everybody’s chasing that thing, but it’s so fun when you just write the song that you’re trying to write that day. That was what came out. We were both fans of Red Simpson and Dave Dudley, and those old truck-driving songs. Brooks and Dunn cut it, but it was never a single.”
Perhaps the emotional highlight for Steele is having the angelic Hall of Fame vocals of Emmylou Harris on “Out Of This Town.” Steele has had the biggest and the best cut his lyrics, but Harris is something a little bit different.
“I just get chills thinking about it. I’ve seen her play at the Palomino. My dad worked just around the corner from the club, and he’d take me to the shows there. I’d see Marty Robbins, I’d see Emmylou. I’d see everybody. There was so much history that I couldn’t run from. To have this, and then to play it for a few people that you really respect – I mean, Emmylou Harris doesn’t have to sing on my song — more than doing a certain style of record, I wanted to make sure that these songs were going to be good. I wanted them to translate, and be like a time machine. I was rubbing my eyes the whole time – that was Emmylou Harris. She sounds like Emmylou Harris. I was just pinching myself. It goes to show you that when you just are doing the work, and enjoying the work – I had no aspirations of this thing ever turning into a record – it was just a fun project. As it evolved, all these things started happening, and I thought ‘Maybe we’re doing some good work here. Vince Gill loves my songs.’ I just can’t get over it.”
Now that the album is out, what are the plans for it? Steele says that they are going to use every avenue of promotion possible. “Obviously, we’re going to get out and play it – as much as we can. Hopefully, people will dig it, and people will start to book us. It’s a big band – a ten-piece band – so we’re thinking about all that. But, we’ve got a publicist, and are just trying to plug it into any stream or outlet that it relates to. All the artists that sang on it are letting us plug into their social networks. As far as touring goes, hopefully, this will stoke a little fire, and that will make others want to come out to see it. Hopefully, we can build something on it, and get people to turn their heads for five seconds and put it on.”