The Americana duo is more interested in soul and soundtracks than the classic sounds of Nashville.
Steelism takes its name in part from Spencer Cullum Jr.’s pedal steel guitar, but the Americana band out of Nashville doesn’t have much honky tonk in its sound. As last year’s 615 to Fame illustrates, their tastes are much broader than that. The opener, “Cat’s Eye Ring,” could be a forgotten track from a Morricone soundtrack, while the aptly named “The Landlocked Surfer” evokes the wide open spaces of the American West as well as the search for the perfect wave.
Steelism is Cullum and guitarist/keyboard player Jeremy Fetzer, and they will play Chickie Wah Wah Thursday night—with a drummer and bass player, though they’re officially a duo. The affable, British-born Cullum started playing pedal steel as a way to get more gigs. He had the requisite background as a conventional guitarist, but there are as many guitarists as there are reality TV stars. He needed a way to stand out and hoped that would do it.
“Maybe it would help get more work and be more recognized,” he remembers thinking. “But it’s not really a chick magnet. It looks like I’m studying for an exam onstage.”
The decision wasn’t purely mercenary, though. He heard the pedal steel in songs by Elton John, The Rolling Stones, and Humble Pie and liked its sound. Cullum looked up B.J. Cole, the session player who put the pedal steel on Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and Cole taught him how to play the instrument. Trying to gig and improve his chops in London proved frustrating as there weren’t many gigs for pedal steel players, and those that existed wanted him to play wavy, mysterioso sounds—some of the easiest things to do on the instrument. It wasn’t until he moved to Nashville that Cullum found more engaging, musically challenging gigs that forced him to improve.
For Cullum, part of the appeal of the instrument is its arsenal of eccentric sounds. It can be used conventionally as so many country artists have done, but he can also record and stack up parts to create the illusion of a string section or even a synthesizer, and he’s still discovering the range of sounds he can access on it.
“You’ve got such a big palate to work with,” he says. “The pedal steel can sound very vocal.”
He and Fetzer developed careers as session players and sidemen, and they met when as part of the band for singer Caitlin Rose in 2012. They connected over instrumental music including Booker T and the MGs, The Ventures, and ‘60s psychedelic soundtrack music—Cullum a fan of Morricone; Fetzer, John Barry.
“Recently Jeremy’s been listening to the new Kendrick Lamar record, trying to get into that,” Cullum says.
In 2012, they released their first EP as Steelism, The Intoxicating Sound of Pedal Guitar and Guitar, which included the first song they wrote together, “Sête, France.”
“We were on tour and wrote it on our down time,” he says. “We were trying to do Serge Gainsbourg since we were in France. “When we recorded it, we said, Let’s have a drum solo here and Let’s have a weird synth solo here and Let’s have a weird jazz part in the middle bit. That was the beginning of us. Holy shit—we can do anything we want.”
That didn’t end their session player ways, though. Touring with Miranda Lambert pays better than Steelism, so Cullum has been on tour with her for her Platinum Tour, which will come to Bayou Country Superfest on Saturday, May 24. Steelism tours in the gaps in her schedule.
Session work forced Cullum to become more of a student of his instrument’s history. He started as a fan of session player Pete Drake, and learned how to give someone Lloyd Green—another Nashville session great who recorded with Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Charley Pride, and Johnny Paycheck among others—but because he came to pedal steel through pop music, Cullum is still learning about how it has been played in country. “I’m not very conventional Nashville,” he says. “Some people like that.”
The eclectic attitude that drives Steelism continues. When Cullum and Fetzer can, they drop into recording studios to work on a series of EPs they plan to release that focus on different styles including one of Krautrock inspired in part by Fetzer’s newly purchased Moog synthesizer and by listening to French electronic duo Air.
“The pedal steel can go with anything,” Cullum says. “That would be fun to do. Let’s try that out.”