Jeffrey Steele Shares the Inside Story of LoCash Cowboys’ Success
Nashville hit songwriter/performer Jeffrey Steele played a key role in keeping LoCash Cowboys focused through years of struggle and up to their debut album release on Average Joes Entertainment. Here, he explains why he kept the faith and helped his friends Preston Brust and Chris Lucas do the same.
When did you first hear LoCash Cowboys? And why did they stand out?
The first time I saw them was at the Wildhorse (Saloon, in Nashville). The funny part is that they had been coming over to my house for about a year previous to play basketball. I used to have this basketball game on Sundays. I hadn’t heard their music, but a buddy of mine in my band would say, “Hey, I know these guys. They play in this band.” And they’d come over and play. They kept telling me to come and check them out. At the time, I was just too busy.
At some point, about a year after that, their name was on the marquee of the Wildhorse. I said, “I’m just gonna check ‘em out and see what this is all about.” I walked in and was blown away by the energy of the show and their control of the crowd. The whole entertainment aspect of it really captured me because they really did entertain the audience.
I listened to some of the songs. It was OK. I felt like they had a long way to go. That was my first view of them. It just kind of perked me up. I said, “Man, there might be something here. It might be five years away, but it’s very cutting-edge. These guys are trying to take a chance with the way they’re playing their music and presenting it to the audience. It looks like they’re trying to latch onto a new crowd as well as part of the old crowd.” That intrigued me and brought me in.
What year was that?
It’s been at least five years ago.
How did they maintain their energy and even tighten their focus over a long, five-year haul?
I sat them down not long after that show and gave them my rap [laughs]. I’ve been doing this for, God knows, 35 years now. And I said, “Look, guys. If you want to do this, you’ve got to want it more than anybody who wants it for you. You’ve got to want it more than anybody else. And you’ve got to become great songwriters. In this world, the way things are today, you have to become artists. You have to become aware of what you’re trying to get out there with your music, what you’re trying to say. No matter what it is, you’ve got to be the best at it. If you want to be like Alan Jackson, you’ve got to be better than Alan Jackson.”
That’s a tall order!
They were more on the left side of the whole thing. They were taking a risk. I kept instilling in them that “you’ve going to have to put everything down for a minute, just keep doing your shows, but realize you’re going to have to spend four or five years writing songs, figuring out what your message is and how to put that around what you do in your live show. You’re playing cover tunes in your live show. If you can get original songs that are like that, that communicate the same thing, you’re in.”
It just began a long process of writing a lot of bad songs [laughs] to get to the good ones. That’s what it’s all about, you know? You’ve got to get the song.”
Lots of very talented people leave after two or three years of effort to break in. Did these guys ever talk with you about feeling discouraged at how long this process took them?
I’ve always been a real big supporter of these guys. Any time things were just going their worst – and it can get really bad and really depressing – I just kept telling them, “One more day. You’ve guys that are so talented that come him, people who are way more talented than you, and they’re gone in a year because they can’t get that extra day. You’ve got to go the extra day! It’s so cliché – “darkness before the dawn” – but when they were out on the road, their bus burned down, the gig got cancelled, they didn’t get paid, the guys in the band were quitting and they didn’t have a record deal yet, they’re going, “We don’t know what to do!” I said, “Man, you’ve just got to go one more day. You’ve got to figure out a way to get to that gig. Get back next week and we’ll write a couple more songs.”
My thing is to just tell people that simple advice: Stay, get better, figure out what you’re doing. And I always finish it with, you can’t quit. If you really want to do it, you can’t quit.
They really broke a lot of ground with their first album (the six-song Anything Like Me, released in 2010). But I felt like they were so far ahead of what everybody was doing at that moment in time, three or four years ago, that they were going to struggle in radio. They were going to have a hard time getting people to wrap around it. As all that happens, you try to fit in. You try to make people happy. You try to do the right song. And I just kept saying, “You’ve got to do what you guys do. You’ve got to take the longer road and just keep going.”
I know that’s so cliché, but most people don’t get to hear that. They can’t understand why somebody isn’t just coming in and going, “Hey, you sing great, man! You need to be famous.” A lot of people get disillusioned really quickly out here. But you’ve got to stay.
When I came to town, I moved out here from L.A. with success under my belt. But it took eight years to figure out what I was doing. I was the same way. I wanted to give up … but I couldn’t. I knew I had to get my music out there.
When they got the song cut by Keith Urban (“You Gonna Fly”), it was at the worst time of their first record deal. They just weren’t given the support they needed, the love they needed. But we just kept writing songs. They started venturing out and I started hooking them up with people I thought would fit what they were doing as co-writers. When they got that song cut, and when that song started going up the charts, I gotta tell you, as a sort of mentor/friend/producer/whatever, I was so excited to see that transition and that credibility start to come to them. They were getting it before as musicians; they just weren’t getting the credibility around town. Then that song took off with a major artist. Then maybe six months later, Tim McGraw cut one of their songs (“Truck Yeah”) and your start seeing that slow boil: The songs are getting really good. And once that confidence starts coming into your music, then you start going, “Whoa, I’m never going to do anything else, because I know I can do this now.” It’s a neat transition to watch, but so many people just want to look for a quick fix.
When people work with me, they always think, “Jeffrey is gonna get us with this guy or that guy.” It’s like a puppy dog just wanting to get the bone; they’re jumping around and barking, they want to get it so bad.
But I’m like, “No, I’m going to sit you down and make you work. First, you’ve got to work. You’ve got a great show! You don’t have to worry about your live show.” Most artists have to spend two or three years trying to figure out how to translate their stuff onstage. A lot of them don’t have that it factor.
I always tell these guys, “You guys are going to be great songwriters. So whatever happens to you on the other end of this thing – and I know you want that ride, you want the fame and the big thing – remember, it all starts with the song. It all ends with the song. If it’s good, you’ll rise. And if you don’t pay attention to it, whether you’re writing it or you’re going out and looking for it from other writers around town. … That’s how Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney have kept going. They don’t write all their songs. They hardly write any of them! But they’ve always kept ahead of the game.
I just keep instilling that little stuff. When those moments come up – and they still do, when things go kind of sour and they’re wondering, “Man, what are we gonna do? We’re working so hard” – well, work a little harder [laughs]. Preston and Chris work harder than anybody I know. They’re just relentless. Once they really get the music part of it wrapped into their heads, like what they’re singing about, there’s going to be an audience that will relate to those songs.
The key words here are “one more day.” It’s almost like the 12-step approach.
Exactly – refining what you do. At some point, someone is going to go, “Hey, what is that?” Someone is going to turn their head. Then ten more people …
CMA members can learn more about LoCash Cowboys in the April/May 2013 issue of CMA Close Up.
Check out the LoCash Cowboys’ “C.O.U.N.T.R.Y.” video on YouTube:
Here is the video for “Keep In Mind”: