Interview: How Steve Moakler’s Hometown Inspired His New Album, ‘Steel Town’
Steel Town may be Steve Moakler's fourth studio album, but the singer-songwriter says that, in many ways, the record feels like his first, in part because of how much thought he put into each of its 11 songs.
"Half the songs are about looking back, and half the songs are about being in the moment and what is available in the moment," Moakler tells The Boot. "I was really kind of reflecting on that, and I was thinking, ‘Man, those seem like two contradictory things, but I think somehow they make each other sweeter. Because when you’re thinking about those moments in the past and what they mean to you, how much you might ache for them to be back again … I think the record is really about that tension."
A Pittsburgh, Pa., native, Moakler admits that growing up in the Northeast city -- a city that thrived in the early and mid-20th century because of the steel industry, then experienced an economic decline for several decades -- "[gives you] a unique set of things."
"I don’t think I realized that," Moakler notes. "It’s the first time I really had the light bulbs come on -- being far enough away from it, but still close enough to know what those things are."
Moakler proudly derives much of his musical inspiration from his working-class neighborhood, the Pittsburgh suburb of Bethel Park. Growing up there helped forge Moakler's career path long before he was aware of it.
"I didn’t realize how unique it is until I traveled to hundreds of other towns," Moakler says. "I think the thing that strikes me about Pittsburgh is the fact that it’s a blue-collar place. It’s a place where people are very proud to be from, but not for any reason other than, I think, the heart of it.
"I think, for me, it’s the sense of place, where people are proud of how hard they work, proud of what they built, and, obviously, the sports," he adds. "It’s a city of champions, and I think that’s kind of put us on the map."
Although Moakler and his wife now call Nashville home, his childhood surroundings are what most influenced Steel Town. Steel manufacturing isn't big business in Pittsburgh anymore, "[but] it’s still left over in the people," Moakler says.
"I think that’s how people feel. That’s how I feel. And I think that’s a really helpful thing to believe, whether it’s true or not," he muses. "Everyone’s fighting a battle in life. And to think, ‘I’ve got some of that steel in me’ -- I think that’s what separates people. Because when you feel strong, you can be strong for other people, and you can be strong for each other, and you can believe in yourself."
When you’re thinking about those moments in the past and what they mean to you, how much you might ache for them to be back again … I think the record is really about that tension.
Moakler is releasing Steel Town independently, but very little about his career is done on the small scale. He's earned himself a fan base, and recognition and respect from fellow country artists and songwriters, thanks to his recent single "Suitcase" and his writing credits (including Dierks Bentley's "Riser"). It's a position that Moakler feels fortunate to be in, and one that he doesn't take for granted.
"I think that everyone who does records has been a little bit better than the one before, and that’s my goal and my hope," Moakler shares. "Even though the masses have not seen that, I guess maybe some of the people in town kind of noticed that I’m not going to go away, and they should listen to me."
Moakler learned just how wide his fan base stretched when, shortly after he and his wife Gracie got married four years ago, they decided to hit the road in a 1972 Winnebago, hoping to find some places to play along the way. He put out a request for locations to his fans -- and was inundated with more than he could accept.
"[Gracie] had a sales job that stressed her out. I was like, ‘You know what? Before we get used to you making money, why don’t you quit and pursue something you’re passionate about? I’ll figure out how we’re going to make some money,’" Moakler recalls of the inspiration for the road trip. He adds with a laugh, "I thought it might be a week or two thing, but we ended up getting 120 offers to come play, all over the country. We were like, ‘Well, we’re going to be busy.’"
So, Moakler and his wife planned a route to 40 of the fan-requested stops. Each night, he'd play, and she'd sell his merch and wares from her jewelry business.
"We had a shoestring budget, and we were just chasing our dreams together, and that’s all we needed," Moakler says. "I think it was one of the happiest times of my life."
Moakler won't have to use that Winnebago for his current tour. The tunesmith is currently headlining the Highway Finds Tour, hosted by SiriusXM, with Drew Baldridge and SmithField serving as opening acts; a list of all of his upcoming shows is available on his website. Steel Town, which debuted on Friday (March 17), is available on Amazon and iTunes.
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