"The Cowboy In Me"
Jeffrey Steele finds a wealth of inspiration in the everyday words and lives of strangers. His search for lyrical ideas never rests. His ability to transform those discoveries into hit songs has made him the most successful of country music's song crafters this year.
"It's important to keep your ears open all the time and not talk about yourself a lot," said Steele. "Everybody else has a story way more interesting than your own. Listen to them, and you'll hear words and phrases that will become your songs."
His success in liberating life's lost musical treasures earned him the title of 2003 Country Songwriter of the Year from BMI at the 51st annual awards ceremony. Four of Steele's compositions made the BMI list of 50 most-performed country songs this year: "Chrome," recorded by Trace Adkins; "The Cowboy In Me," by Tim McGraw; "My Town," by Montgomery Gentry; and "These Days," by Rascal Flatts.
Steele put nine songs on the Billboard country charts in 2002. Only one other writer had as many songs charted during that year.
"I'm always in a song," said Steele. "I love seeing where the words are going and what direction the melody will take. Sure, there are rules, but in another way, there are no rules in songs. It's a beautiful thing."
Steele, born Jeffrey Levasseur in Burbank, CA, began calling himself Jeffrey Steele one year after his father's death in 1987, as a tribute the man he most admired. His father, also an aspiring songwriter, owned a shop that cut and processed steel for various industries. The youngster spent much of his childhood playing around the shop, listening to traditional country singers on the radio while his father worked with steel.
Now 42, Steele remembers well the decades of practice that led to the development of his songwriting talent. He began writing "funny little songs" and his own versions of TV jingles in early childhood. After a high school career notable for his failing finger-picking guitar class, he became a touring musician at the age of 17 and affiliated with BMI as a professional songwriter the same year -- but another decade passed before his songs earned significant income. During the early years, it was not even Steele's "wildest dream" that he could make a living as a songwriter.
"In the first ten years, my BMI checks were for a few cents or maybe a buck-fifty, he said. "Finally, after I started playing with a group called Boy Howdy, my first big BMI royalty check came. When you're trying to feed a family of four, and you realize this is something you can do to solve your financial problems, it's great! Before that, I would take almost any job I could find to make $30."
At the top of the songwriting profession, Steele has had more than 200 of his songs recorded in the past three years, including previous BMI Country Award winners "Unbelievable" (Diamond Rio), "I'm Tryin'" (Trace Adkins) and "Couldn't Last a Moment (Collin Raye). He's placed cuts on the latest projects by Faith Hill ("When the Lights Go Down" and Joe Nichols ("That Would Be Her") and is currently on the charts with the rising singles "Hell Yeah" by Montgomery Gentry and "And the Crowd Goes Wild" by Mark Wills.
In addition to his BMI Songwriter title, he was also named the 2003 Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) Songwriter of the Year during their November 2 awards show. He performs 150 concerts annually and is recognized by many country fans -- but insists his career has been very different from public perception. "You want people to realize there are lots of blue collar guys trying to make a simple living as songwriters," he said. "These guys are trying to get just one song cut. It's not glamorous the way most people think. I realize showbiz magic draws people in, but this is a working business. I don't know how people think we write these songs. They don't magically appear."
The process of songwriting never ends for Steele, occupying his thoughts wherever he goes. "My schedule is a complete mess," he said. "Anybody who knows me will tell you I'm an hour late and two days behind. When I get there, I'll work until there's no work left. My publisher has me writing every day, but when I get home, I'll stay up late writing. I'm constantly thinking, talking, listening to conversations - hoping to hear my next song title."
BMI Awards List
BIG DEAL - 2000 Country Award / Million-Air
CHROME - 2003 Country Award
THE COWBOY IN ME - 2002, 2003 Country Award / Million-Air
COWBOY'S BORN WITH A BROKEN HEART - Million-Air
COULDN'T LAST A MOMENT - 2001 Country Award / Million-Air
I'M TRYING - 2002 Country Award / Million-Air
IF YOU LOVE SOMEBODY - 1998 Country Award / Million-Air
MY TOWN - 2003 Country Award /Million-Air
SHE'D GIVE ANYTHING - 1995 Country Award / 1994 Pop Award / Million-Air [2 million]
THESE DAYS - 2003 Country Awards / Million-Air
THEY DON'T MAKE THEM LIKE THAT ANYMORE - 1995 Country Award / Million-Air
UNBELIEVABLE - 1999, 2000 Country Award / Million-Air [2 million]