Prolific songwriter composes for celluloid hits

When Jeffrey Steele took the stage at the Viper Room in November, it was the first time in a dozen years that he was performing on the Sunset Strip. Between those two performances he had become a sought-after songwriter, albeit 2,000 miles away from his hometown and the clubs he worked, first in hard-rock bands and then as a country act.

His return to Hollywood was in part physical in that he was performing to celebrate the wide release of three of his albums that had been previously available only through his website and at the 40-50 shows he does each year, mostly near Nashville. On another level his trip to Hollywood was metaphorical: Steele’s latest song, “I Thought I Lost You,” is being sung by Miley Cyrus and John Travolta over the end credits in “Bolt.”

For a native Californian whose songs — “My Wish” and “What Hurts Most” by Rascal Flatts, “The Cowboy in Me” by Tim McGraw among them — have been given 25 million spins on radio over the last 15 years, it’s an introduction to a new world.

Cyrus, who co-wrote the tune, surprised Steele.

“I was amazed at her sense of where the story had to go within the song. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised,” Steele says.

A judge and mentor on the most recent season of “Nashville Star,” Steele is working on an album with Sebastian Bach, the former Skid Row singer who won the televised “Gone Country” competition. It’s a bit of a no-brainer for Steele, who grew up musically playing in hard-rock bands on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s and ’80s before he turned to country, playing bass and singing in the popular SoCal band Boy Howdy.

The big difference, obviously, are the lessons learned trying to make a living as a country musician playing California and Nashville clubs.

“Music was a big part of it, but it was the people I was meeting, the stories I was hearing,” he says of his early days in country music.

“I’m a guy who had a San Fernando Valley existence and I was getting pieces of life I hadn’t experienced. … I watched how they emoted, what they said, how they lit up. I wanted to capture the look on people’s faces. I don’t know what it was, but I wanted to write to those feelings. Years later I meet Al Anderson (with whom he would co-write 300 songs in two years) and a big door opened. Through what he taught me, I could get to those places.”

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