Poets & Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Jeffery Steele

September 27. 2008
Jeffrey Steele may be one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters, but that is a relatively recent development for the forty-seven-year-old singer and band leader, who has been an entertainer nearly all of his life.

When the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum feted Steele for his significant contributions as a songwriter on September 27, his love for entertaining kept shining through. During a two-hour program, he shouted out to friends, mugged with the crowd, told humorous stories involving audience members, and even sang a line of each song as host Michael Gray recited a long list of Steele’s hits.

Gray, a museum staff member, cited Steele’s accomplishments as he introduced him as the latest songwriter honored in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s on-going series, Poets and Prophets. Steele has been named Songwriter of the Year three times by the Nashville Songwriters Association International and two times by BMI. His song “What Hurts the Most” was BMI’s Song of the Year in 2007. He also has written six #1 hits and more than twenty Top Ten singles.

“Those numbers have probably changed this week, as Jeffrey has several songs on the charts at any given moment,” Gray added. In 2008, Steele has already written three Top Ten hits: Rascal Flatt’s “Every Day,” Phil Vassar’s “Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” and Craig Morgan’s “International Harvester.”

Steele opened the program with a solo performance of “Something to Be Proud Of,” a hit he wrote for the country duo Montgomery Gentry. He recalled how he wrote the song after a record executive asked him if he had a “My Town II,” referring to a previous hit he had written for Montgomery Gentry. Steele balked, saying sequels were never as good as the originals, and he’d prefer to write “something I could be proud of.” The phrase set off a light bulb in his creative mind, and by that afternoon he was incorporating the phrase into the title chorus of a new song with co-writer Chris Wallin.

Born Jeffrey LeVasseur in Burbank, California, Steele revealed the story behind changing his name. As a performer, he realized people often mispronounced his name in introductions. Because his father was a machinist who cut steel for a living, Steele decided that he would adopt the name of the metal as his own, making it easier for everyone to get it right.

As the youngest of five children, he benefited from his parents and siblings’ love of music; through their record collections, he was introduced to country, jazz, rock, and funk from the 1960s and 1970s. All of those sounds and influences “gave me this broad foundation,“ Steele said, “and mashing them all together became how I wrote songs.”

At age ten, he wrote his first song, “Baby I’m Yours.” Steele even sang part of the song as he talked about it, a practice he would continue throughout the program. Not long after that, he performed in a young vocal trio with his brothers under the name Sapphire, even recording a couple of songs in California’s famed Gold Star Recording Studios.

In his teen years, Steele would play honky-tonk in working-class country bars in the San Fernando Valley, then go into Hollywood and lead a hard-rock band on weekends. Photos of Steele as a late ‘70s rocker, shown on the big screen behind Gray and Steele on the Ford Theater stage, drew an explosive laugh from the crowd. The songwriter also told of getting booked to play honky-tonk and classic country songs at high schools across Texas. (Steele’s recent album, Countrypolitan, pays tribute to his early country days by covering songs he often performed when starting out.)

Steele enjoyed his first success in country music with his California band, Boy Howdy, which enjoyed several radio hits between 1992 and 1995. Gray played the #4 hit, “She’d Give Anything,” and the fast-tempo “Thanks for the Ride.” (As the records played, Steele drew laughs by lip-syncing parts of the song from his chair.)

Afterward, Steele noted that he was particularly proud of the latter song, explaining that its rock-influenced beat was “ahead of its time” and that he often writes in the same style today. “I’ve been writing that same song for thirty years, trying to get it right,” he said. “Writing that song was the moment where I could see where I could go with my career. It was something different than traditional country, and it turned out to be a stepping stone for me to the next thing.”

"After a Boy Howdy show in Nashville, as part of the old Fan Fair festival, Steele talked to his wife Stephanie and their family about moving to Nashville. She visited houses with a realtor and agreed to make the move. “It’s a great tip of the hat to Stephanie that we moved here,” he said. “I was still out touring with the band. She literally packed up the ’88 red Dodge mini-van with the siding falling off and the broken door, and she put the kids in the car seats and drove it across country. When I came back home from that tour, I was living in Nashville.”

His wife Stephanie and their daughters—Jessie, Casey, and Justine--- attended the program, and Steele introduced them to the audience. He also mentioned his late son Alex, who died at age thirteen in a tragic road accident last year. “This is a really sweet, poignant, beautiful day for me,” Steele said. “But it gets a little trivialized when I think of what’s gone from our lives now. I want to thank everybody who has been there for us, and some of my great friends out here. For my family, it’s just been a really hard, hard thing to deal with. Alex would’ve liked this. He would have thought it was cheesy, but he would have been proud.”

For Steele, giving up his ambition to become a popular musician was a hard transition. But he began having vocal trouble, and after trying to find a solution, he realized he needed to stop following a heavy touring schedule. Boy Howdy split up, and Steele began focusing on songwriting.

Steele cited songwriter Al Anderson, a former member of the rock band NRBQ, as providing him essential encouragement as a songwriter. They wrote the Diamond Rio song “Unbelievable,” which became one of Steele’s first big hits, in 1998. Steele remembers how Anderson made up a word, “gotta-have-able,” to finish a line in the song, which Steele cites as a lesson to discovering the freedom he could have with wordplay as a writer. He even named his music publishing company, Gottahaveable Music.

The program touched on several of Steele’s other hits, including LeAnn Rimes’s “Big Deal,” Tim McGraw’s “Cowboy in Me,” Trace Adkins’s “Chrome,” Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish,” and Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town,” “Speed,” “Gone,” and “Hell Yeah.”

With “My Wish,” Steele told another of many self-deprecating stories. It began by recalling how he met famed professional basketball coach Pat Riley backstage at a Rascal Flatts concert in Florida. As Riley gushed to the band about how much he and his family love the song “My Wish,” Rascal Flatts singer Gary LeVox noticed Steele and enthusiastically introduced Riley to the co-writer of the song he loved so much. Steele then mimicked how Riley turned to him quickly and gave him a quick handshake and a “Hi, how ya doing?” Then he turned back to the band, ignoring Steele.

Steele laughed along with the crowd as he finished the story. “The most famous people you will never know—a songwriter,” he said with a wry smile. “They can’t live without us, but they sure seem like they do, don’t they?”

The sold-out crowd hung on Steele’s every word, and laughed loudly at every comic comment he made. Steele received several standing ovations throughout the program, with the loudest coming after his touching performance of “What Hurts the Most.” Steele co-wrote the award-winning Rascal Flatts song for his father but now dedicates it to his son Alex when he performs it.

On this day, at least, the crowd betrayed Steele’s self-deprecation. They realized just how important Steele’s contributions are, and, with every laugh and every ovation, they enthusiastically let him know it.

—Michael McCall