You avoid labelling yourself as a ‘Country’ artist. A measure to avoid being stereotyped into what is currently been trotted out as ‘Country’ by a large section of the media and commercial radio?
Definitely. That’s not my scene at all. Some of my songwriting cohorts around the State of Texas have this kind of inside joke that we all write “County” Country music…which underneath the County Country umbrella you have Brush Pop, T-Post Metal, etc. It’s basically just our way to poke fun at mainstream country and kind of take the tunes back under a more focused lens. Trying to look at more specific scenarios in our songwriting but with the goal of achieving a sense of universalism that can connect with folks from every walk of life.
Is the ‘Americana’ label a better tag, or do you think that it’s become too wide ranging itself?
Americana is closer to what I’m trying to do, definitely. Americana has been around long enough to where it has evolved into a full-fledged scene. Scenes to me have always had this concept of a glass ceiling. It’s a very limiting thing. You can only take the music to a certain boundary if you want to be part of the scene, whether that be a geographic or quality threshold we’re talking about. Like you said, it’s a very broad thing because sometimes it’s hard to define. The closest thing to a “tag” I could put on it is Singer/Songwriter. If I’m riding home after a gig in an Uber at 2 am and the driver asks me what kind of music I play…I always say “I just write songs”.
I’d prefer to label you as a Texas artist, true and true. As an emerging artist, how important is it for you to continue that tradition so well represented by artists such as Guy Clark, Townes, Robert Earl Keen and James McMurtry, to name but a few?
I like that, man. That’s my ultimate goal…to be a good ambassador for the history and culture of my home State. That’s what all of those writers achieved in my opinion. The first song I can remember hearing was Robert Earl Keen’s “Five Pound Bass” …and really everything on his “No. 2 Live Dinner” album he cut at Floore’s. My parents (especially my dad) were huge REK fans so he was always in my childhood soundtrack. Also, in a bit of an ironic way, my dad hated country music for the most part. Ha-ha. Said it all sounds the same and the lyrics lacked substance…but he loves some REK. But to answer your question…it is extremely important to follow in those folks’ footsteps and try to write songs I would feel comfortable playing to them. Their art cuts you deep and changes you…and that’s the goal.
You’re among the next generation of artists following a similar musical path. We’re coming across so much talent in Texas in recent times, both male and female. Do you feel part of a collective mini crusade of torch carriers or ploughing a lonely furrow?
Oh, most definitely. Right now, on the aggregate I think we’re still stuck in a period of imitation rather than progression. Even I find myself at times trying too hard to sound a certain way. Recycling old songwriter tricks/melodies instead of just letting my voice carry the weight and innovate. But that being said, there are so many young songwriters picking their songs right now just below the surface that are struggling to break through. But they’re chipping away at it. Like the Progressive Country Movement of the 70’s…these writers aren’t really driven by fame and fortune for the most part, but rather the desire to do better and to make things right again.
Were the Texas singer songwriter trailblazers your primary musical influences growing up?
Besides Robert Earl Keen…no. I came to the Terry Allens/Guys/TVZ’s/Prines of the world later in life…and even they were my gateway drugs into even deeper spectrum stuff like Dan Reeder, Malcolm Holcombe, Chip Taylor, David Olney, Chris Smither, Tom Waits. But before I really found my calling in life was to write songs…I listened to all kinds of stuff. Lots of Bob Marley, White Stripes, Slayer, old Black Keys. And from some of that stuff I dove into the Blues that it seems a lot of young folks interested in American Roots music have come up with (Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, etc.). And from the Blues I went to old school Country and Western swing. Then into the singer/songwriters. It’s been a wild ride.
I believe you spend quite a number of your younger years residing in the Middle East. What positives did that experience have on your development?
I did. My dad was dentist for an oil company over there so I spent about 9 years in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and a year near Kaiserslautern, Germany. So, you can imagine it was a huge lifestyle shift for a country kid from rural south Texas. My mom’s family has been ranching in south Texas since the mid-1800’s…so looking back now I can’t even imagine how weird it must have been for her. Ha-ha. It was a very privileged and unusual upbringing but it allowed me to travel all over the world to the point where I was almost sick of it by the time I moved back home. It really opened my eyes and really pumped a lot of understanding into my brain. Definitely gave me plenty of shit to write about. Ha-ha.
Did music feature at all during those years?
Besides listening to it…not very much. I took piano lessons for 4 years but never practiced. Tried guitar lessons but that didn’t even last the week. Wasn’t until one of my dirt biker buds had some System of a Down tablature sitting around one day and I looked at it and was like “No shit…it tells you where to put your fingers?! I can do that!” After that I caught the bug and started shredding. Then as the angst faded over time, I filtered it down to what felt the most real to me.
You returned to Texas. Had you ambitions moving away from Texas at any stage?
Man…I’ve been spending some time in Nashville recently writing and playing a couple shows…and it only reaffirms my suspicion. I can’t spend more than 5 days there at a time. And even that’s pushing it. When I came back to Texas from Saudi, I guess that concept of distance making the heart grow fonder really kicked in. I don’t think I can ever leave Texas except for vacation or a business trip. It feels like it’s my duty to stay and hold down the fort.
Was your success in winning the 2017 Kerryville Folk Festival University Singer Songwriter Competition the final trigger and confidence booster to take the plunge and write / record your debut album South Texas Homecoming?
For sure. After years and years of playing background music gigs in college bars…winning that definitely put some gas back in the tank. I had submitted songs every year I was at the University of Texas…made the finals a couple times before that but never brought it home. But I guess they felt sorry for me on my super-senior year. Ha-ha. And getting to play the Kerrville Folk Fest where some of my heroes had played was a real trip as well.
Youhavementioned in interviews that the album might have people scratching their heads at the variety of styles on it. By contrast, I feel the album has a definitive cohesion across the twelve tracks?
Thanks a lot man. I like to keep it eclectic sonically. All those songs thematically and lyrically came from a very honest place. I know lots of folks are super paranoid about the idea of concept and a similar sonic palette…but this was more of a collection of songs from a specific time in my life rather than a complete thought. Records are hard, man.
Tell me about the title. A reflection of settling home for good having resided abroad for a long period of time?
In high school (American) Football…there’s this big game every year called Homecoming that's always a big school pride deal. Some places have bonfires and fireworks and whatnot…a big deal in small towns (especially Texas). So, the title was a play on that idea of this thing that is the center of this geographically isolated places universe. Something that in day to day life in Ireland you might never know about…just like most of the folks from my hometown probably don’t know that Rugby is a sport. Ha-ha. So, it’s definitely a nod to that…but the simpler answer is it’s about returning to my home and roots after a long hiatus spent away from there. And hence what you find waiting for you when you return. It isn’t meant to be only about Texas…more about where ever the listener has left behind.
I get the sense you put your heart and soul into the album. The selection of John Ross Silva for starters. He’s worked with a lot of big hitters like Kris Kristofferson, Hal Ketchum and Hayes Carll, together with some lesser known quality names like Jamie Lin Wilson and Courtney Patton. Was he the obvious choice for you?
Glad you can hear that. I really did. John was. Long story short…I had this high school coach named Chris King (look his tunes up) who was fresh out of Texas A&M and was teaching to fund his songwriting passion. He got me into songwriting. Every record Chris has made was made with John who was one of his closest friends. I’d always really admired John’s work. I had absolutely no intention of cutting a record. Then one day Chris, who in a crazy turn of events is now my co-worker at my day job (we refinish mid-century modern furniture at a shop in Austin), told me John was going to be leaving Cedar Creek Studios where he’d been the main engineer for 14 years kind of apprenticing under Lloyd Maines. This was stemmed from the passing of Jimmy LaFave who basically ran his record label out of Cedar Creek. So, in a nut shell, John had heard about me through the grapevine and offered me a great deal on recording there as his last project as a full-time employee of the studio. So, we just gripped it and ripped it.
What did he bring to the table that particularly impressed you?
First off…John is just a really good person. I’m not a fan of bad people, the folks that “take your money and make your record”. John isn’t that guy. If he believes in you and your stuff, he lets the words and playing do the talking and lets the players lay the foundation beneath the song. He’s a master and am very proud of what we created together.
Production aside, the playing on the album is top drawer. Tell me about the crew that provided the instrumentation?
We had some real aces on it for sure. But more importantly just great, down to earth folks. Geoff Queen did all the pedal and lap steel, Scott Davis tracked bass on our live tracks then overdubbed electric guitar, Brian Beken on fiddle, Richie Millsap on percussion, and Wade Josey overdubbed the keys. It was a stellar band and I just did my best to stay in tune and on time. Ha-ha.
You recorded the album in only a couple of days. Was this a reflection of the pace you work at or budgetary constraints?
Like I said…I had no plans of making a record at the time we went into the studio. I’d been playing all of those songs acoustic (except Zancudo Blues, which I wrote a week before we cut) in bars for the previous two years. So, when we went into the studio to cut them…I already had arranged all the parts and knew kind of how they needed to be laid out. We honestly could have cut them all in a day and a half they came together so quick. We charted them ahead of time and with the caliber of players and their work ethic…it really let us rip thru the tracks. We had three days to work with based on my budget…but that ended up not being an issue.
Over what period had the songs been written?
Give or take two years. The two years leading up to the recording of the record I was writing basically two songs a week on average…then it just came down to trimming off that fat and deciding which songs didn’t suck as much as the others. Ha-ha.
More and more artists allude to ‘needing’ to write rather than ‘wanting’ to write. Do you find the process liberating and personally essential?
I definitely need to. It has become part of my DNA. I never in a million years wanted to be a songwriter or planned on making a living as a musician. But once I felt what a well written song could do for you in hard times…I knew this is what I wanted to do. I never put a schedule on my writing and never stop writing. The sharper your mechanics (phrasing, lexicon, cadence, meter) …the more prepared I feel you are to receive and process an idea or moment when it hits you.
What elevates much of the material to an even higher level for me, is the pedal and lap steel. Quality of the playing aside, its placement in the arrangements works perfectly. How significant was this for you?
I’m an absolute pedal steel junky and Geoff Queen is my favorite pedal steel player. He plays a once a month gig in south Austin at Sam’s Town Point called “Steel Monday” that Rose Sinclair (who plays with Wayne Hancock) started up. I go as much as I can and it is one of the most inspiring things. Geoff is willing to approach the instrument from different angles much like I try and do with songwriting. He’s schooled in the blues but has the fundamentals and tone of western swing and jazz down to the T. It was a no-brainer to have him on the record. Plus, he’s my good friend and one of my favorite songwriters Shad Blair’s next-door neighbor…so I knew him as a friend first and not as a hired gun. There was definitely a mutual respect between us I think and I think that translated to his best effort possible on the record. His playing was truly the backbone. Also, John really masterfully mixed the whole deal which helped a lot too.
The track Finding Who I Always Shoulda Beenis a particular standout. A statement of contentment by James Steinle at his present career vocation or am I reading too much into the title?
No, that’s totally it. I was cleaning out a backroom at my Grandma’s house in south Texas with my mom one day and we found this real old dilapidated cowboy hat box in the closet. I opened it up and it was a brand new short-brim Resistol silver belly my Grandpa had bought shortly before he passed away. Apparently, he also had a small head because I put it on and it fit like a glove. It was a real serendipitous moment since he passed away when I was three so I don’t really remember him. He was a county Judge in McMullen County for a long time and was one of those old school no bullshit Texans. They had this sign at the county line that said “Welcome to the Free State of McMullen County” …that’s because he wouldn’t let the state troopers come across the county line. Ha-ha. Just this super self-sufficient mindset and attitude that has always resonated with me. So, the experience of finding that hat and really reminiscing on where I came from and where I wanted to go yielded that track.
Fellow Texan Carson Mc Hone adds vocals on the track Sticky Nickels. You both appear to be carving out similar career paths. How did that relationship develop?
I love Carson. She is one of the hardest working folks I know and has opened a lot of doors for me. She is one of those torch-bearers you were speaking of. I met her when I first turned 21 and could start going to shows (legally). She was doing a residency on the east side of Austin at this joint called The Sahara Lounge. It was every Monday with Chris King, Don’t Kill the Hang, Mayeux and Broussard, and her. Now all those people on that bill are basically my best friends and musical influences in town. We would swap songs here and there in the coming years and she would always go out of her way to stick her neck out for me. I owe her a whole lot. She’s just so damn great. And she absolutely nailed it on that track. Hell…we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren’t for Carson.
The albums out there now. It’s excellent in my honest opinion. How does an emerging artist like yourself plan to maintain momentum and get the music to an audience without the backing of a major label?
Thank you so much man. It means a lot to me you giving the songs a chance. I’m about to release a live record I recorded live and acoustic at Hole in the Wall in Austin in April. I’m going to do a short PR run and release the whole deal in late July or early August I reckon. I plan to use that to tour on in the Fall. At the end of this month I’m going into the studio with one of my songwriting heroes Bruce Robison (another Carson introduction) at the production helm to cut my second full-length studio album that we’re shooting to have out in January 2020. After releasing South Texas Homecoming completely independent with no team…I received a couple offers from booking agencies and signed on with Atomic Music Group. They’ve opened a lot of doors for me. Now I have a publicist on board as well. Labels are weird these days and I really think the only way to truly hack it and progress is to write good songs. If you don’t do that…none of the other stuff matters. So hopefully if I keep pen to paper and slowly keep adding to the team…I can keep the ball rolling and sustain myself.
Do you intend concentrating on playing Texas or setting your sights further afield and how practicable is it to get on the road with a band given the expense of touring?
I’m starting to branch out. Lots of American bands just want to hop in the car and hit the road. But going on tour before it’s your time I feel can really jade people before they even get to the point where they should be taking the operation on the road. There are plausible and fiscally doable ways of touring these days if you aren’t a label artist…but I’m still learning how to do that. I think with the release of these next two records in the coming year I’ll have a lot more mobility and purpose to hit the road.
Ambitions to get over to Europe?
Totally man. Probably have more ambitions to tour Europe than I do the US. I speak pretty decent German, so Germany has always been a big goal of mine. I love Ireland. Some of my dad’s best friends are from Dublin and have always heckled me to come over and play my tunes. I honestly can’t wait to get to y’alls neck of the woods and it has taken a lot of patience to not just throw together some makeshift tour and hop on a plane. But it’s one of those deals like touring in the US…there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. I don’t need to make a ton of money…but it’s hard for me to justify losing money. When it’s time and I meet the right folks to help me make it happen I’m packing up and heading y’alls way. Hopefully very soon.
Finally, if you had not chosen this career how do you expect you’d be passing the days?
I’d be cattle ranching for sure. There was a point during college I was centimeters away from dropping out and moving up to New Mexico to run cattle for my dad. He’s a dentist…but his passion has always been running cattle. I grew up doing that and learning how to love hot, shitty, sweaty ranch work. If I ever get to a point where I make enough money playing music…it’s going straight into my own piece of land and starting my herd. It’s just in my blood. But for now, I’ll keep writing.
Interview by Declan Culliton