Randy Steele was born a musician. His mother was a member of a Pentecostal family band that traveled across the country and sang at tent revivals. From the age of 14 onward, he toyed with learning the guitar and drums and played jazz guitar seriously when he entered the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Shortly after starting the music program, he realized that going down the professional music route was not ideal for him, so he switched to the Emergency Medical Technician degree and became a full time firefighter. That, however, has not stopped him from continuing to hone his music abilities. He picked up the banjo and devoted himself to studying it intensely, then met the fellow members of Slim Pickins. What started out with open mic nights at Tremont Tavern eventually turned into recorded albums, several gigs, and a European tour. His music career is still growing, and with the recent release of a solo album, Songs from the Suck, he’s excited for what is yet to come.
Why was the banjo so appealing to you, more so than the guitar or drums that you had grown up learning?
Randy: I think it was because it was all new; it was a new instrument and a new style of music that I had never studied before. I think the lyrical content of bluegrass music is incredible. I grew up with music that emphasized soloing; that was how you knew how badass the musician was. That theme carried on in bluegrass music, but the solos are more compartmentalized than what I was used to. There aren’t typically long amounts of time to jam out; the fiddle solo usually lasts about eight measures and then you go right back to the verse and chorus. But in those eight measures, you get to explore the music any which way you’d like. It also helps that bluegrass is so inclusive. In a typical jam session, you could have a brand new banjo player sitting next to Norman Blake and it wouldn’t make a difference what level you were, everyone could learn.
Who would you say your musical inspirations are?
Randy: It’s always changing. Early on, I listened to a lot of Garcia Hunter’s songwriting. Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. I’ve always really loved those. I’ve recently gotten into Miles Davis; his music is the type that makes everything melt away once you turn it on.
Once I got introduced to the banjo, Earl Scruggs was my go to guy. He was paramount to my development not only as a banjo player but as a musician. He was such an inventive guy who created a whole new way of playing. Most people who hear Scruggs style of banjo playing these days don’t realize that it’s only been around since the 50’s. But it’s this one dude who came up with a style. There are a couple of names that only banjo nerds will know like Alan Mundy that influenced me as well. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Luke Bell, an up–and–coming country guy, and Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys. Becky Buller is lyrically a major influence on my songwriting style; I really respect her. She is the 2015 IBMA Songwriter of the year and 2016 IBMA Vocalist and Fiddle player of the year. The IBMA's are the bluegrass equivalent to the CMA's. I went to a workshop of her’s and ended up writing two songs and working closely with her. I still do Skype lessons with her.
What does your creative process look like?
Randy: It depends. Almost everything starts with me recording a melody first, which I’ll write words for. Sometimes it’s me driving down the road, recording melodies on my phone. I’ve got a whole phone of me driving and singing melodies that I’ll try to figure out on the banjo when I get home. When I go to write words, I like to go by the Hemmingway method: write drunk and edit sober. I like to sit down and write without thinking about editing and then there will be a few edits before I think it’s complete. Giving time between these edits helps me to see if these actually make sense or not.
Why did you want to become a musician? And how do you balance having a full time job and a family with your music?
Randy: Having a supportive wife has really held it all together. If she gave me shit about playing music or didn’t support me, then it would be really hard. But she’s always been pushing me to do what I love, even though she’s not a huge music person herself. I would say that without Christy’s support, this wouldn’t have worked. It’s really cool.
What made me want to pursue it was really the opportunity. I think playing with Slim Pickins was really cool because we started out with me being the only one married in the group but as we’ve played together for longer we’ve grown up together. Now most of us are married and have kids that get to play with each other. Everybody’s like family, and that’s dictated the longevity of our band. We didn’t go into music thinking we were going to change the world with bluegrass; we’ve used it as an avenue to do what we love like travel to Europe or ski vacations where we go play gigs at ski resorts that pay for our trips.
Tell me about this album you just released. What was the inspiration for it?
Randy: It started last year; the guys in the band had a guitar made for me because they thought I needed to do more writing. Out of that one act of kindness, I really started to focus more on songwriting. I sent some stuff to a friend who works at Fame, who told me to come down and record. This album was born out necessity; I had this guitar and session time in Muscle Shoals, which is huge because of its history in recording and shaping a unique sound relevant to the rhythm and blues and rock of the 60’s and 70’s. Etta James and Little Richard even recorded there. Two of the guys from Slim Pickins came down and recorded with me and ended up doing another session there. Right after that we prepped for our European tour. We put the sessions on the back burner but once we got back we raised the money to finish the album. In the meantime, I went to the Soundry with T.J. Greever to record parts for him because he was working on a solo album. We ended up recording the rest of my album there, too.
Randy's release, Songs from the Suck, is available for on itunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, Google Play and in physical copies. There is currently no charge, but donations are suggested. These proceeds will go towards Room in the Inn, a local nonprofit that shelters women and children and provides them opportunities to improve their lives with classes on health, wellness, and jobs. For more information, please go here.
Photo credit goes to undaground for the blog photo and Stratton Tingle for the avatar.