Songwriters don’t come any bigger or more successful in Nashville than Jeffrey Steele, who has picked a perfect time to unleash his country-hard rock amalgamation on recordings under his own name. Steele has played mentor and judge on TV singing competitions and provided Rascal Flatts, Montgomery Gentry and Tim McGraw with monster hits, but his captivating two-hour show at the Viper Room demonstrated that he’s not lost a step in the years since his ’80s club days playing metal at Gazzarri’s and his early ’90s band, the fine rock-country outfit Boy Howdy.
Steele’s mien is unique and timely: He fuses heavy metal and modern country to create a bridge between the generations that struggled to co-exist in the 1960s and ’70s. Now deep in his 40s, Steele toils in a world looking for unification, giving voice to grandparents, parents and children as they come to terms with expectations and real-life situations. His younger characters have grown to respect their elders even as they prattle on about the way things used to be; he invests healthy degrees of grit and determination in people unsure of their next step. Unlike others working the hard rock-country hybrid — Kid Rock, for example — Steele avoids chronicling parties and hangovers, instead revealing what was learned upon reflection years after the last keg was tapped.
Lot of familiar tunes made it into Tuesday’s set, all of them more ragged, raw and passionate than their recorded brethren. The hits for others — Rascal Flatts’ “My Wish” and “These Days,” Montgomery Gentry’s “Hell Yeah,” Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy in Me” and especially Trace Adkins’ “I’m Tryin’ ” — were stripped of their polish and presented as old letters and diary entries, the heart exposed on the page. (Despite being onstage for almost two hours, Steele did not have time to get to “I Thought I Lost You,” the song he wrote with Miley Cyrus that she sings with John Travolta in “Bolt,” the animated film that opens Friday.)
Whereas so much modern country has latched onto Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Eagles, Steele has tapped into Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and John Fogerty, thoroughly assimilating the uncaged aspects of rock with Nashville’s by-the-book rhythms. And he’s honest about where his inspiration comes from, adding snippets of “Whole Lotta Love,” “Kashmir,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Born on the Bayou” to his own songs.
Steele, who released three CDs Tuesday after making the material available via his website, is attempting to parlay his country celebrity (judge/mentor on “Nashville Star,” GAC’s “The Hitmen of Music Row”) into a shot at ascending the rock world, a feat that has never been achieved with any consistency. He learned first hand with Boy Howdy how traversing the territory between rock and country can leave you in a no man’s land, with neither side lending a helping hand or even a compass. The path is clearer now, but it has been a one-way path traveled by Bon Jovi, Kid Rock and Darius Rucker. It’s about time Nashville unleashed a talent on the rock world.