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Relative anonymity: Jeffrey Steele a quiet star in the world of country music

Courtesy photograph

The name Jeffrey Steele may not initially ring any bells but if you’re a country music fan, you’ve definitely heard his music. In fact, there’s a good chance that he’s written at least one of your favorite songs. The California native co-wrote chart topping country singles: “Brand New Girlfriend,” “The Cowboy in Me”, “These Days”, “What Hurts the Most”, “Here” and “My Wish” – just to name a few.

“People usually have no idea that I’ve written so many of the songs they know. That’s just the story of my life,” chuckled singer and songwriter Jeffrey Steele.

Steele may think that relative anonymity is the story of his life, but happy accident may be a more fitting storyline.

“I really gravitated towards music as a kid and when I heard stuff on the radio I would always try to mimic and copy it. So finally, my mom and dad bought me a guitar, but I could never figure out how to play it! Then one day my older brother was like ‘don't you play baseball left-handed?’ When I told him I did, he grabbed my guitar and flipped it over, so the strings were facing the other way. All the sudden, I could play the guitar! Thankfully my brother knew about left-handed guitars,” explained Steele.

From that day on, Steele was hooked on music. Performing with various bands, Steele finally settled on the country outfit Boy Howdy in 1990.

“We had a few hit records and songs, so we toured a lot and kind of lived the dream for a while. But it got to the point where we were working so much that I started to have trouble with my voice,” recalled Steele.

Performances nearly every night, coupled with a plethora of radio interviews each morning, left his vocal chords swollen and painful. Steele says it got so bad that sometimes he couldn’t talk at all. When brief periods of rest didn’t help, Steele visited a doctor who immediately suggested he take a drastic course of action.

“The doctor wanted to do surgery, but you know, things like that can go wrong and I didn't want to risk it for something that might be able to heal on its own. So instead of surgery, I decided to just take a year off from performing,” said Steele.

Without the ability to perform, Steele helplessly watched as his finances began to suffer. Then one day it clicked.

“Music was everything to me and the thing I knew how to do the best, so I just told myself ‘if you’re gonna stay in the music business you're gonna have to do something to survive’. I decided that I liked writing songs, so I should probably try to get good at it,” Steele explained with a laugh. “I was determined to figure out who I was as a writer and musician. You know, what I wanted to say in my music, what I wanted it to be about.”

Pulling influences from southern rock ‘n’ roll, the blues and country greats like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Steele developed a signature style he hoped would make country accessible to a wider audience.

“I learned a lot of about the music industry when I began writing. You know, I’d write a couple of songs that would capture the attention of a big act like Aerosmith and everyone would go from thinking I was crazy for combining my influences, to thinking I was a genius. Then overnight they’d flip on you again. But I just kept sticking to what I was doing instead of chasing the industry. I found my music and I’ve never really looked back,” said Steele.

Part of finding his style was figuring out where his inspiration was going to come from. But like most things in his life, Steele thought it’d be better to just let things come to him.

“I never really know what’s going to inspire me. Sometimes I just hear someone say something and that’s all it takes. Like the song ‘Brand New Girlfriend’ – I was sitting around with some buddies trying to write and I just hated what I was coming up with, so I asked my buddies ‘does anyone have anything I could write a song about?’ One of the guys raises his hand and says ‘well, I got a new girlfriend’ and that was that,” said Steele.

Of course, not all inspiration is as obvious. Steele says that his biggest songwriting hit “What Hurts the Most” was influenced by being stood up by an English boy band who was supposed to work on an album with him.

“I was in London because I was supposed to work on an album with Westlife and the guys were going to write with my partner and I in the hotel after shows. So, there I am set up in a hotel room waiting for these guys to show up and they never did. One night my partner and I just imagined this crazy story about being on the road and we wrote the song. When we finally met up with the band, we played them a snippet and they shut it off after 20 seconds because they thought it was too sad. Well the song bounced around to Aerosmith who said it was too depressing, then Faith Hill said the same thing, but I never really gave up on it. Eventually, the guy who was producing Rascal Flatts called me up and said, ‘do you still have that really depressing song?’ Rascal Flatts listened to it and hated it too but hey, it ended up winning song of the year,” laughed Steele. “The song wasn’t even supposed to be called “What Hurts the Most,” I just slipped up when I was singing it and it was kind of a happy accident.”

What hasn’t been an accident though is Steele’s newest venture, Sons of the Palomino – a rhinestone cowboy hat wearing classic style country band. Initially, Steele was told he was crazy for trying to bring back a style of music that all but died off in the 60s, but he wasn’t fazed. Now the 10-piece country outfit is being heralded by Billboard and the Rolling Stone as the revival of country music.

“No matter how hard it, is you've got to stick to your own guns. You’ve got to do your own thing and you can't chase what other people are doing because they've already done it. Be you because that's what makes you who you are.”

*Originally published by the Anchorage Press

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