I think in the ’60s and ’70s, the session musicians were so much stronger and outspoken in the way they played,” Spencer Cullum, Jr. says in his distinctive East London accent. “Look at Pete Drake with his talk box on Willie Nelson’s version of ‘Hello Walls.’ You wouldn’t be able to get away with that now.”
Cullum and Jeremy Fetzer, his musical collaborator in the band Steelism, are sitting in the living room of Fetzer’s apartment, sipping rye whiskey and engaging in a little music nerdery. As is often the case with any huddle of obsessive music fans, the talk is about classic recordings and the conflict of “now” versus “then.” But in this case, Cullum and Fetzer, both top-notch Nashville session players, share a passion for past musical glories paired with their own firsthand knowledge of the current state of the music business. Continuing the conversation, Fetzer says, “Or how Kenny Buttrey played drums, no one plays drums funky or groovy like that on sessions now. They thought outside the box and brought their personalities to their session work.”
“For all those guys, it was about their character,” Cullum adds. “It enhanced their playing. They were allowed to put their personality into the music. Today you go in to do most sessions and you can feel like you’re just a plug-in. It gets very regimented, especially that country-pop demo sound. I guess that’s the machine that works, but with Steelism we get to create our own character.”
Steelism’s “character” can be heard in all its quirky glory on the duo’s recent full-length debut album, 615 to FAME. Taking a cue from classic instrumental combos of the 1960s and ’70s, Cullum and Fetzer created a sound by combining each of their multiple and varied musical influences into fresh and engaging tunes. Although they now travel the same musical path, their journey began on opposite sides of the globe.
Originally from Canton, Ohio, Fetzer followed the usual path for born in the USA guitar players — teenage obsession and high school garage bands. It was a way to channel his passion for the music of the 1960s and ’70s. “I love that era,” he says, “all genres — soul, blues, pop, country, Latin music. I’m fascinated with how people approached recording studios, their instruments and writing during that period. Culture, technology — everything was just right for music to be at its peak.”
His path eventually led to Nashville and Belmont University’s music business program in 2005. Once in Music City, he fell into a grand Belmont tradition of exchanging real world experience for a sheepskin when Dualtone Records signed his band The Deep Vibration in 2008. The ‘70s-influenced country rock quartet produced just one EP (Veracruz) before going their separate ways, but Fetzer had gained his admittance to the Nashville music and recording scene.
“I started doing freelance guitar work and session work,” he says. “One of my first jobs was Caitlin’s Rose’s album [2010’s Own Side Now]. We toured quite a bit, and I ended up meeting Spencer while on that first tour of the U.K.”
Cullum’s road to music was a bit more complicated, especially after he made the decision to move from the standard-issue electric guitar to what is considered a strange and rare beast on the British Isles — the pedal steel guitar. His obsession began with a song by the Rolling Stones from the classic 1972 album Exile on Main Street.
“I was around 19, still in university,” Cullum says. “I was a long-haired, kid guitarist playing in old East London pubs, and then I heard ‘Torn and Frayed’ that had Al Perkins playing pedal steel on it, and I had to have a steel guitar.” After an extensive search of London music shops, he struck pay dirt.
“It was the shittiest Sho-Bud Maverick you’ve ever seen,” he says. “I had to put books underneath because I was too tall for it. I don’t think my parents knew what steel guitar was, but I managed to convince them to lend me the money to buy it.” However, owning a steel guitar was a far cry from taming the beast.
“It was so daunting,” Cullum continues. “I was in my bedroom for months just hacking away at it and sounding terrible. The steel guitar is such a beautiful instrument, but it’s the worst sounding instrument when it’s out of tune. My mum, God bless her, put up with it for six or seven months.”
He finally realized he needed help and a little musical Sherlocking paid off. “I went through all of Elton John’s early records and any British band that wanted to sound country, and I kept finding B.J. Cole’s name,” he recalls. “I went to a show in London that he was playing. I managed to convince him to teach me steel guitar. He put me on to Jimmy Day and Lloyd Green records. He said don’t worry about your right hand picking, listen to John Hughey [on Conway Twitty’s “(Lost Her Love) On Our Last Date”], how simple it sounds, and how in tune it sounds. His left hand is so vocal, and the right hand isn’t doing that much.
“He was so persistent about how it doesn’t matter how fast you’re playing, it’s how you hold your bar. He made me practice holding my metal bar for like a year, and I had to walk around with it. I remember getting on the tube with it in my hand. It was kind of creepy really.”
In 2006, Cullum, along with his older brother Jeff, joined the Deadstring Brothers while the Detroit-based country rock outfit was touring in the UK. When the band returned to the States, the Cullum brothers accompanied them for a few months. That experience brought Spencer to Nashville for the first time and gave him a taste of Music City. It was late in 2010 when he went to see Caitlin Rose on her first tour of the U.K. and crossed paths with Fetzer.
“Spencer’s accent was so strong I thought he was kidding when I first met him,” Fetzer says. “He took us all out for drinks, and then he decided he was going to play with us the next night. He knew all the songs, so he joined the band, and we just kept playing together.”
Cullum and Fetzer quickly discovered they had a natural musical affinity — one of those charmed partnerships where two players instinctually operate on the same wavelength, reinforcing and driving their mutual creativity. The partnership continued when Cullum officially relocated to Nashville in 2011, and their collaborations soon extended beyond working together as just sidemen or session players.
“When we first met over there, Spencer would act like he was taking a phone call and then say that was his record label calling about his band Steelism,” Fetzer says. “We would joke about his fake band, how he was going to take over the world with instrumentals.”
But the joke didn’t last long as Cullum and Fetzer began transitioning Steelism to “realism.” In 2012, the pair self-recorded and released Steelism – The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar on the Nashville indie label Theory 8 Records. The five-track EP showcased their love of classic R&B and rock instrumentals, and the pop art film soundtrack scores of composers like Ennio Morricone, John Barry, and Lalo Schifrin.
The pair’s musical synergy continued on Caitlin Rose’s 2013 album, The Stand-In. Although it covered much of the same musical territory occupied by Rose’s first long-player, the interplay between Fetzer’s guitar and Cullum’s steel work pushed the sonic punch of the record to new heights. Their playing displayed a mastery of styles that ranged from the bread & butter groove of country rockers like “I Was Cruel” to the lush, postmodern Nashville Sound pop tapestry of “Golden Boy.”
“We loved making that record,” Fetzer says. “We got an acoustic demo with all the spaces and holes, and we shaped the melodic parts for all the tunes. Then somehow we got a guitar and steel solo into every single song.”
With the collaboration gears running at full speed, the pair decided it was time for Steelism to make its full-length debut. Along with their tour work with Rose, and session work for other artists, they began writing songs and laying down tracks. The album got an extra burst of energy when they got the chance to record at the legendary FAME Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
“We started recording tracks in Nashville,” Fetzer says, “and then we hooked up with Single Lock Records which is Ben Tanner, John Paul White, and Will Trapp. Ben used to work at FAME, so he had a connection. As soon as we found that out, we put the pressure on him. It was great to get out of Nashville to record. You can totally concentrate on the music. You don’t have to worry about being home for dinner.”
As musicians and music fans, Cullum and Fetzer were excited and also a little nervous to be working in the same studio that had produced hits from Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Etta James, and scores of other artists.
“The studio hasn’t changed a bit,” Cullum says. “It’s a bit of a time warp, like it’s still stuck in 1974. Most of the studios in Nashville now have a very bright sound, and it was a very flat, sort of dark sound.”
The resulting album, 615 to FAME, was released last September to immediate acclaim. Critics were quick to praise the album for its all-inclusive and transmogrifying approach to the duo’s influences.
“It was our chance to play all the types of music we don’t usually get to play with the singers we back up.” Fetzer says. “Every song had different influences — Morrison, Stax soul, surf rock, Led Zeppelin crossed with Dick Dale, Latin music and Ry Cooder, Kraut rock crossed with country and western.”
While Steelism’s exact recipes may be fresh and tasty, the process of talented sidemen and session players stewing a unique musical gumbo of varied ingredients is a Nashville tradition that dates back to the birth of the Music City scene. It’s a practice that can be found in the hillbilly-tinted jazz cut by Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, and others in the 1950s and on through the bevy of Nashville-based six-string and steel guitar master instrumental albums of the 1960s. It was found in the early ’70s country rock excursions of Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry, and in the lucha libra surf sound of Los Straitjackets in the ’90s. The formula has always been simple — gather a small group of like-minded Nashville cats together and great music happens with no concern for genres or pigeonholes.
“What’s the most fun is that being an instrumental band, we can get away with playing any genre of music,” Cullum says.
“It’s a showcase for all this great music that we love,” Fetzer adds, “and there’s no singer to get freaked out when you go from a Cuban tune to a surf tune or a funk tune.”
But the absence of lyrics doesn’t mean Steelism has chosen the path of extended solos and indulgent instrumentation. Like such classic rock and R&B instrumental combos as the Ventures or Booker T. & the MGs, Cullum and Fetzer chose to build the material on 615 to FAME around traditional song structures. It’s evident on the south-of-the-border cowboy cool of “Tears of Isbella,” which could easily be the backing track for a lost Marty Robbins classic; the teenbeat garage-punk snarl and strut of “Ladybird,” or the Beatle-esque Britpop of “Greenwich Mean Time.”
“We’re both lead players,” Fetzer says, “but we’re really about the melody. It was our goal to make it where you don’t miss the vocals. To treat the steel and the guitar like they are singers. So we wrote everything like a song with verses, a chorus, and a bridge.”
That desire to keep their presentation simple and to make their music accessible to an audience not generally familiar with instrumentals is evident in Steelism’s live performances. Drummer Jon Radford and bassist Michael Rinne join Cullum and Fetzer on stage, along with occasional help on the keyboards from Los Colognes ivories tickler Micah Hulscher. Together, they tear through their original numbers along with catchy and intriguing covers, like the instantly recognizable “James Bond Theme,” as well as more obscure and groovy movie soundtrack selections, such as Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s theme for the 1969 French thriller The Sicilian Clan.
In between selections, Cullum keeps the show moving with wry commentary. “I’ve got quite a strong East London accent,” he says. “It’s considered a very low-class accent in the U.K., but the response is great over here because I sound exotic. I kind of got pushed into being the announcer because I just like talking bollocks to people. The main thing is I don’t want it to be like a jazz concert — moody, where we play a song, and everyone just claps after the solo.”
One of the most distinctive numbers that Steelism performs live is their reggae-tinged cover of the Beatles’ “Something” that features Cullum’s “talking” steel guitar. Cullum shapes the sound of his solos through the movements of his mouth with a “talk box” — an audio gadget invented in Nashville by steel guitar great Pete Drake and popularized by British rocker Peter Frampton in the 1970s.
“It’s really a one trick pony,” Cullum says. “You can’t use it on too many songs. The last time we toured England, some proper punk sort of dude came up to us and said, ‘I fuckin’ hate the talk box, I hate cod reggae, and I hate the Beatles, but I enjoyed that.’ It’s probably our best review ever!”
In addition to the acclaim garnered by their first full-length album, Steelism has made several short tours of the U.S. and just returned from their first headlining circuit of the U.K., where B.J. Coles joined them for some London shows. The duo also remains highly in demand as session players, working with Miranda Lambert, Rayland Baxter, Andrew Combs, and others.
The discussion is winding down in Fetzer’s living room as the pair cast their eyes to the future.
Although doom and gloom have been the bywords of many in the record industry in recent years, Cullum and Fetzer have a different take on the state of the music business, one that involves their own “steely” character.
“We have been seeing a change lately,” Fetzer says. “[In session work] we’re getting asked to incorporate more of what we do with Steelism into other people’s albums. I do think there is an opening right now for new, independent, creative music with its own character. We want to turn Steelism into something more than just a band — make it a brand name for everything that we do — our instrumental recordings, our work as backup musicians or session guys, and we want to write film scores.”
“We want to record as much as possible and build a library of tracks,” Cullum adds. “Like a series of EPs on different themes — making our own soundtracks for films that don’t exist — ‘Steelism Spy,’ ‘Steelism Space,’ ‘Steelism Desert.’ Eventually we may even make a Steelism record that doesn’t have guitar or steel on it,” he concludes with a touch of dry wit. “Wouldn’t that be something?”