The recent NPR Weekend feature on Nashville-based Steelism was the wider world’s first introduction to this quirky and appealing band. Founded by multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal-steel virtuoso Spencer Cullum, Jr, Steelism is differentiated from a sea of indy acts by its focus on music, rather than lyrics: their debut album, “615 to Fame” has not one word sung or spoken on it.
There aren’t many bands who are famous for their instrumental tracks, so comparisons to Ry Cooder, Ennio Morricone, The Ventures, Dick Dale, and Booker T & The MGs are inevitable. Steelism seems to understand and embrace this. “Cat’s Eye Ring” and “The Blind Beggar,” the opening tracks of “615 to Fame” are very Cooder-esque tunes, with Cullum’s pedal steel paying homage to Cooder’s slide guitar, evoking shadowy visions of dusty highways, spaghetti Westerns, and lonesome roadside bars.
The third track on the album, “The Landlocked Surfer,” takes the same basic sound and adds a heavy component of ’60s surf music. The reverb-drenched guitars of The Ventures and Dick Dale haven’t been heard much since the “Pulp Fiction” sountrack was popular in the late ’90s, but their laid-back vibe and timeless cool are a good fit with today’s hipster scene. This may be why the album’s first official music video is for “Marfa Lights,” a surf tune with just a bit of ambient electronica thrown in to make it palatable to the MP3 generation.
One of the most successful instrumental bands in the history of popular music was Booker T & The MGs. Led by Hammond organist Booker T. Jones, the MGs paved the way for acts like Funkadelic and Parliament. Steelism tips their hat in Booker T’s direction on several tracks, most notable, “Caught In A Pickle,” in which Cullum’s pedal steel blends seamlessly with the sounds of organ and funk guitar.
Back in 2003, legendary guitarist Ry Cooder released a terrific instrumental album called “Mambo Sinuendo,” inspired by his musical travels in Cuba (Cooder was the man largely responsible for introducing the Buena Vista Social Club to a worldwide audience). Steelism’s “Cuban Missile Crisis” track clearly draws from similar influences, and would not have felt out of place on that album. There’s something about a Cuban beat combined with the American sound of steel on steel that blends together like a tasty Mojito.
In a musical landscape dominated by whiny singer-songwriters and over-produced pop divas, the cheerful, refreshingly complex sounds of Steelism are like a breath of fresh air. “615 to Fame”is the perfect soundtrack for wherever the dusty highway may take you.