Photo: Anthony Scarlati

Legendary singer-songwriter Jeffrey Steele gives C&I a first listen to his band’s new Sons of the Palomino album, available June 30.

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Jeffrey Steele has made a name for himself in country music as one of the most prolific writers in the business, having penned songs like Rascal Flatts’ hit “What Hurts the Most” and Steve Holy’s “Brand New Girlfriend.”

Steele’s newest project pairs his classic style of lyric-writing with an old-school honky-tonk flair in the form of a band called Sons of the Palomino. Headed by Steele, the band consists of some of the most talented instrumentalists in the world — from steel guitar legend Paul Frank and bassist Glenn Worf to gifted pianist Gordon Mote. Their self-titled debut album will be released June 30.

 Marketing materials aren’t exaggerating in saying the project took Music Row by storm. Just consider some of the guest artists who showed up at the recording sessions: John Anderson, Emmylou Harris, Jamey Johnson, Vince Gill, Gretchen Wilson, and John Rich (of Big and Rich fame), who appears on lead single “Countryholic,” and appears in the video. 

Rolling Stone recently debuted “Countryholic,” a true dance hall track designed to play on repeat. Now we have a new track to deliver, “Lie,” which reminisces about the simple longing in a relationship. Here’s Steele himself talking about the project.

Cowboys & Indians: You’re such an iconic songwriting figure in Nashville — inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013, with more than 60 hits to your credit. At what point in your career did you feel like you’d made it?
Jeffrey Steele: I honestly think the first time I looked up from my work was at the HOF induction. It felt like the roller coaster rolling up at the end of the ride, when you’re all frazzled and buzzin’ and your hair’s a mess and you’re dazed and smiling and you realize you made it through those scary twists and turns and loops and climbs and you completely forgot the fear you had just before the ride started. And my first thought was, Let’s go ride it again!

C&I: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you start with the melody or the lyrics first?
Steele: It’s never the same on any given day. I’ve learned how to live out of my comfort zone. There is no one defining way to a great song for me. In a co-writing situation, it’s usually a conversation that leads to a thought that leads to a riff, which sparks a melody. I'm also overly aware of everything around me in a room. For example, if I’m with a band writing songs, I know their quest is to define their sound, so my instincts zone in on what they’re doing on their instruments as we begin the co-write. I hear everything! We might be into a song when a guitar player just drifts off and plays some riff. And I’ll stop and say, “Wait! What did you just play?” They won’t even realize they played it, and I’ll remember it note for note and stop what we’re doing and say something like, “Play it again with straighter phrasing,” and then I’ll start strumming what I’m hearing melodically and — boom! — we’re writing what we really want to write.

I think one of my best God-given skills is an ability to listen to everything going on in the studio at the same time: the talking, the random playing, the other people singing. I can hear all the voices as well as my own. To put it metaphorically, I’m a farmer trying to find the best seed to put it in soil. That’s always been the work ethic for me.

C&I: What’s the back story of your song “Lie”?
Steele: “Lie” — this goes back to the last question! There’s never one way for me. I was in the throes of making this record and inspired to write stuff with a classic nod to form and lyric styles of my favorite iconic country songs. So my brain was in that space. I was looking at my girl one night lying on the bed and was thinking about all our years together and I thought, I love it when you lie. And that was it! I sat up in bed all night just typing lyrics. No melody, no music. Just words. The next day in a co-write I said, “Hey, let’s put some music to this that captures a beautiful, sexy moment of a guy realizing he is powerless over his girl’s mere presence.” And it fell out in a few minutes!

C&I: Your songs have been recorded by stars like Montgomery Gentry, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Rascal Flatts, and Billy Ray Cyrus. What’s it like to hear someone else interpret something you wrote? Do you feel more attached to your songs when you sing them?
Steele: I think the music fans for sure feel more attachment to the song when they see me sing it and realize I created it. They immediately want to know why I’m not the one out there singing it. There’s always an absolute sincerity when it comes from the writer him/herself. You do feel this sneaky sense of letting them in on the secret behind the walls of the mysterious workings of the music business. Ha! As for me, I’m honored when a song gets recorded by any artist and finds wings in the world. Songs are always alive to me, so when I sing them, I try to capture the spirit I had when I first wrote them every time I sing them.

C&I: Your new album, Sons of the Palomino, is coming out on June 30. What are some memorable stories along the way of getting it from concept to actual release?
Steele: I made a career out of mixing the two and breaking the format in Nashville of what could be done. But in a meeting one day before going into the studio, we joked and laughed about how we should go in the opposite direction and make ’em even more country! That conversation then got serious and became an idea to build something that showcased all of my earliest inspirations, from Merle to Cash to Willie to Waylon to Hank to Dwight to Ray Price to Bob Wills to Kris Kristofferson to Buck Owens, and my earliest days playing in the house band at the infamous Palomino Club in North Hollywood, California.

I learned all I know about classic country in that dive bar and saw all the greats perform there. As we began recording old-school live — no overdubs, loops, just “straight to tape” as they used to say — with some of the greatest musicians in the world — guys who played on the old songs: Paul Franklin, Larry Franklin, Joe Spivey, Gordon Mote, Glenn Worf, Michael Rhodes, Shannon Forrest, JT Corenflos, Steve Gibson, Tony Harrell — it became immediately clear we had a vibe going. It inspired more songs to be written. The musicians loved it enough to say, “Yeah, let’s go play some gigs.” Which we did, and fans lit up on it!

Probably the best thing to happen is that the album was taking a long time to finish due to my schedule and the musicians who are in constant demand. I was getting a little frustrated wanting to finish, but that turned into a blessing as in the interim I played a few unmixed tracks for some people I highly respect in Nashville — Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Jamey Johnson, John Anderson, John Rich, and Gretchen Wilson — who all asked if they could sing on it! That took the project to a whole different level and put a focus on really getting it right. The result was well-worth the three years spent making it come together.

C&I: What songs on the album are you most proud of and why?
Steele: I truly love every one. There is no filler. I always gravitate to the most real, so I’d say “When Lonely Calls,” “Whiskey Years,” “Old Roads and Lost Highways,” “Unbroken People.” These are pages of my life. Losing my son, battling addiction and demons, and somehow still standing here with a smile. But I [also] love “Countryholic,” “Lie,” “Out of This Town,” “Runnin’ Round,” “Used to Be a Country Town,” “Independent Trucker,” and “Nobody Does Lonely Like You Do” because they captured a spirit. I knew we had to get to keep it “Authentic” — pun intended. [Laughs.]

C&I: Your mom was a singer and your dad wanted to be a country music songwriter. What aspects of your parents are evident in you? What on this new record is for, about, or because of them?
Steele: I think it’s truly for them and about them. When it’s all said and done, my dad was a force to be reckoned with. He taught by doing — you just do it. There’s nothing you can’t do. He worked his butt off for his family. He stood for and helped and gave a smile to everyone. He taught me how to do it myself, my way. He made me feel I had an important role in life. My mom told me to stay humble no matter what. They came to the bars in the old days when I first started out and they two-stepped around the dance floor while I sang with my band. They were proud of me. They never witnessed my successes or failures along the way, but I know my voice came from my mom and my writing came from my dad. And I truly think everything I write plays into that. Every song on this record is for them, especially the uptempos. They loved to two-step to those shuffles. When I’m onstage now I close my eyes and see them arm-in-arm on the dance floor.

C&I: What kind of touring will you be doing to support the release?
Steele: We are slowly gathering dates and getting reactions and hope to be everywhere they’ll have us. You just hope the stars line up and people feel the music in a real way and want to experience it live, which is pretty amazing, I might add. I’m blown away at every show at the amazing talent of this cast of musicians!

C&I: What’s the best thing about being on the road? How about the hardest thing(s)?
Steele: Always the people. That’s why you’re out there. It never gets old to me. And that spark that happens when you’re really in a groove and the fans are, too. The hardest part is keeping your sanity. Ha! You need that alone time — it’s a commodity. I get in such a mode of wanting tonight’s show to be better than last night’s show. So the day is filled with thoughts of how to make the fans feel it even more. It’s hard to shut that off. I wanna feel the town I'm in, but I’m so locked into the night’s performance, so it’s a balancing act for sure.

C&I: Who are some of the singers and songwriters that have inspired your creative development?
Steele: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Freddie Powers, Merle Haggard, Robert Plant, John Fogerty, Ray Price, Elvis, Jim Morrison, Frank Sinatra. There’s just too many to name. ...

C&I: What’s in heavy rotation on your iPod/turntable?
Steele: Sons of the Palomino, of course, because I’m checking all the mixes for any flaws, but I'm a crazy music lover so it’s a mix: Beck, Sinatra, Hank Williams, U2, Thomas Dolby, Velvet Revolver, Bob Dylan, Esquivel, Gipsy Kings, Allman Brothers, Air, 20 or so new songs I just wrote to see if they hold up. Again, it goes on and on and always changes.

Jeffrey Steele’s upcoming album Sons of the Palomino is available for pre-order here.