How Jeffrey Steele Put Together the Sleeper Country Album of the Year
Hit songwriter assembles honky-tonk supergroup for 'Sons of the Palomino'
The first time Jeffrey Steele heard country music in person was at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. His father would take Steele, then about 9 years old, to the weekly Palomino Talent Show, where he saw legends like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens play to crowds of a few hundred people. Years later, Steele, who today is a Nashville Songwriting Hall of Famer, got his start playing country music in the Palomino's house band.
"I was playing the Roxy and the Viper Room in these rock bands, and I started moonlighting as a country guy because I could make $50 a night playing bass in a country band," says Steele. In spite of his father's influence, he'd been weaned mostly on rock & roll by his older siblings. "When I first started hearing those songs, I was so overwhelmed by the lyrics and simplicity, the twist of the phrase. Country's got a certain form that really separated it from the rest."
Steele, following in the footsteps of Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams, would go on to be one of the leading lights of early Nineties West Coast country as the front man of Boy Howdy, and find even greater success as a songwriter when he moved to Nashville. Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts and Steve Holy all took his songs to the top of the charts, while he enjoyed a few minor hits himself as a solo artist. But, now 56, Steele finds himself channeling those early days with his latest project, the honky-tonk throwback super group Sons of the Palomino.
"Your publisher's coming to you like, 'God, I love this song, man. It's too country for country radio, but I love this song.' You laugh about it and look at each other and go, 'We should go re-record these,'" says Steele, who decided he needed to pursue the concept when he had four or five good songs that fit the mold. "It just morphed into this thing that was built around my upbringing. I was a lot more of a West Coast guy; I grew up with Bakersfield music, Gram Parsons and that whole side of country music."
The first seeds of what would become Sons of the Palomino would be sewn over a decade ago when Steele wrote the song "Independent Trucker" with Chris Stapleton, which was recorded by Brooks and Dunn in 2004. "We were looking at each other back then, saying, 'Can we write a song like this?' And I remember Chris saying, 'We'd be stupid if we didn't,'" he says. The key for Steele was that these songs were shuffles. "Back in the day, my mom and dad would come out and see me play and just two-step all night around the dance floor," he remembers. "Everything's mechanical now, everything's beats. There are no shuffles anymore."
Excited by the initial recordings, Steele assembled a group of veteran ringers to re-create the sounds of Eighties Los Angeles, including Paul Franklin on steel guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, and Gordon Mote on keys. "For the most part, the band are guys I've worked with for at least 25 years. All the guys in the band have played on a lot of those records, so they get the gag of it. They get what it's all about," Steele says. Others soon followed, including Emmylou Harris, who contributes a particularly beautiful vocal on "Out of This Town." "I played one for Vince Gill and he flipped. He wanted to sing on it. Then I played that one for Jamey Johnson and he went, 'Man, do you got one I can sing on?'" Steele recalls with a laugh.
All three of those singers, along with John Anderson and Gretchen Wilson, make appearances on Sons of the Palomino, the band's debut LP, which was released in June. Some collaborators, like Adam Hood, who wrote album opener "Runnin' Round," needed more convincing. "He had that title and wanted to write a drum loop thing for it. I just listened to the title and was like, 'That title is from 1965. It's gonna be a Sons of the Palomino song,'" says Steele, who immediately heard it as a shuffle. "I ended up recording it, but I think he thought I'd lost my mind."
When it came to naming the band, Steele thought of his old friend, Billy Block, who'd played with him in the Palomino's house band alongside Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Dale Watson. "He always wanted to do a recreation of that house band and call it Sons of the Palomino," Steele says. "He kept trying to put it together, but everybody's schedule was busy. We just couldn't do it." Sadly, Block, who'd moved to Nashville and established his own weekly staple, Western Beat, died of melanoma in 2015. With the blessing of Block's wife, Steele took on the Sons of the Palomino moniker.
"That's where I was from. It summed up how I got to here. It was kind of my college education," Steele says of the Palomino, which closed its doors in 1995. More than just nostalgia, Sons of the Palomino has given him the opportunity to do something completely different than what he's used to artistically. "A lot of people who know me, have seen my show or my band, they've never seen that side of me before. I'm like a crooner. I'm doing Charlie Rich songs, lots of really cool covers like Dave Dudley," he says.
Bringing those old songs and sounds back to life is something that Steele hopes will turn younger country fans onto artists like Rich and Dudley, whom they may have never heard before. "There's no history anymore, nobody knows those guys. Everybody knows the icons, of course, but there was a lot of great music back then that people have forgotten about," he says. "Maybe this opens the door for people who've never heard the stuff."