Sons of the Palomino

Every songwriter dreads these words; “Nobody is going to cut this song.”

Everybody, that is, except Jeffrey Steele. Make no mistake: This Nashville SongwriterHall Of Fame member has written more than his share of hits, including No. 1 singles for Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and other headliners. Which is why his latest project triggered so much head-scratching up and down Music Row.

Unlike almost every release coming out of Nashville, Sons Of The Palomino wasn’t created to dominate the charts. In fact, the writing on most of its cuts involved Steele’s collaborators expressing bafflement or disbelief at the way he was steering the session.

“You can’t play this for Luke Bryan! You can’t play this for Kenny Chesney! They’re gonna laugh you out of town!’ Steele quotes some of his co-writers. “But to me, none of that mattered. That’s not what Sons Of The Palomino is about.”

He’s laughing himself as he recalls these conversations. Partly because the skepticism he ran into usually turned into enlightenment and some of the most enjoyable writing he’s ever done. Mainly because the results were exactly what he was looking for.

To understand Sons Of The Palomino, turn off whatever contemporary country station you’re listening to. Forget for a moment about those plush corporate offices and business lunches that define where the genre is going these days. Let Steele take you back to what may have been a better time and place.

We’re at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, circa late 1980s/early 1990s. It is, in the nicest sense of the word, a dive: dark, dingy, low ceiling, red stools lining a long bar,duct tape patching a carpet worn by decades of artists dragging gear in from the alley and shlepping through the crowd toward the room in the back where they could change before their show. Only the photos that cover the walls — shots of Johnny Cash,Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, each one taken as they played on this venue’s cramped stage.

Tuesday nights were set aside for Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance, which featured a house band with occasional surprise guests. For seven years Steele was its bass player — a budding writer himself, with a lot of mileage both in southern California rock venues and in hard-core country honky-tonks from San Diego to Bakersfield. His bandmates were gig-toughened too: the lineup on any given evening might include future hard-core country star Dale Watson, Marty Rifkin on pedal steel, Redd Volkaert or Buddy Miller or Jim Lauderdale on guitar and the late, beloved drummer Billy Block.

“We never knew what was going to happen,” Steele recalls. “Maybe Mick Fleetwood or Rodney Crowell would show up. Buck Owens or Dwight Yoakam might sit in. One nightEddie Van Halen walked through the crowd and got up onstage. Somebody would say,Hey, can you play “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It?” And we’d learn it on the fly! It was great training, like eight years of college.”

The Palomino closed down long ago. But even after making his mark in Nashville,Steele never forget how those shows affected him as a writer, player and singer. For awhile he talked with Block about getting some of the guys back together to do a show maybe at the Franklin Theater south of town. It was Block who came up with a name for the group: Sons Of The Palomino. Sadly, he passed away before they could make it happen. Steele, however, grew more determined to pursue their goal.

He achieves it with Sons Of The Palomino. Steele wrote or co-wrote the songs, all of them dedicated to honoring the classic country music that the Palomino championed.After sifting through the material, the most essential step was to gather musicians who understood his intentions. Or, in Steele’s words, “We wanted to cut it with guys that had cut with the guys.”

The first recruit was steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, who helped line up bassist Glenn Worf, pianist Gordon Mote and other exceptional musicians. Their input helped Steele focus on the finer details of each arrangement, making sure that they were consistent with the way the masters who had headlined at the Palomino would have done it.

“We were working on a ballad,” Steele points out. “I had this idea to do a little figure atone point. After I played it, Gordon said, ‘We can’t do that. That’s not how they would have played it.’ He was right. My brain was trying to make it my thing, the way I’d do it. It was good to have these ropes on me, so I could get more creative within them.”

There’s plenty of variety on Sons Of The Palomino: classic country wordplay on
“Runnin’ ‘Round” and “Lie,” a brawny Red Simpson/gear-jammin’ anthem with“Independent Trucker,” a textbook Ray Price shuffle groove on “Runnin’ ‘Round,” the wrenching pain in Steele’s words and delivery on “When Lonely Calls” and the weary wisdom of “Old Roads And Lost Highways” …

As sessions proceeded, word spread around Nashville about Steele’s undertaking.
Soon others voiced interest in being a part of it, which accounts for the all-star cast of special guests. John Anderson was the first to come aboard, for the tongue-in-cheek “Authentic.” “When he came in and sang, he made the song authentic,” Steele insists.“More than that, he validated what we wanted to do. ‘Authentic’ was our mantra for the whole record and he just took it there.”

Others followed: Emmylou Harris underscoring the ache woven into the brilliant
narrative of “Outta This Town,” John Rich adding his trademark swagger to ‘Coutryholic,’ Jamey Johnson looking at life through the bottom of his glass on “WhiskeyYears,” Gretchen Wilson joining Steele on a gleeful deconstruction of the city they call home on “Used To Be A Country Town,” Vince Gill commiserating with Steele on the last-call lament “Nobody Does Lonely.” …

And that leads to a realization that surprised even Steele: This response from his peers is an early indicator that country music lovers throughout the world just might be ready for a change. Maybe it’s time for songs to get real again, for artists to try being true to themselves again.

Or, in Steele’s words, “If even one guy listens to this record and then goes back and finds Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’ or the music of Bob Wills, then as far asI’m concerned Sons Of The Palomino will have done its job.”