Steelism’s Debut Stretches From Surf to ‘70s

Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum Jr.

If you’re looking for the two members of the Nashville act Steelism — namely, guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum Jr. — you can probably find them with their noses deep in a record crate somewhere. They’re obsessive vinyl enthusiasts scouring the aisles and bins of record stores around Nashville, always on the prowl for an odd or unheard album.

“We both grew up on rock ‘n’ roll,” says Fetzer, “but we’re always trying to look further and further back. So we’re always searching for LPs that we haven’t heard yet, usually something obscure.”

“We’re very snobbish,” Cullum adds with a laugh. “There’s not much new music being played through our speakers.”

If Steelism’s debut, 615 to FAME, is any indication, their record collections are sprawling and diverse, covering everything from classic country to ‘70s radio, from traditional Hawaiian music to ‘60s surf rock, from classical to jazz and seemingly everything in between.

“The record sounds fantastic on vinyl,” says Cullum. “We just got the test pressing back from the plant, and the first time I heard it, I felt like it wasn’t us. It sounded better than us.”

Cullum and Fetzer met while backing artists like Caitlin Rose, Jonny Fritz and Wanda Jackson, but Steelism is their opportunity to step into the spotlight.

“I approach my guitar playing very differently in Steelism than I do when I’m playing with a singer,” says Fetzer, “because the guitar and the steel become the singer.”

CMT Edge: Obviously, you both live in Nashville and presumably have 615 phone numbers, but what role did Muscle Shoals and FAME Studios play on this record?

Cullum: We recorded this record with a guy called Ben Tanner from the Alabama Shakes. We met him through a friend, and he wanted to sign us to a label called Single Lock Records that he runs with John Paul White [formerly of the Civil Wars] and Will Trapp. They run it out of Muscle Shoals, and we really wanted to track the record at FAME Studio.

Fetzer: We had done the first half in Nashville, but we finished it up in Muscle Shoals. We were trying to pick up some of the good vibes from the room at FAME. We were like kids at Disneyland.

So you were pretty familiar with that studio and its history?

Cullum: Jeremy and I are huge fans of the music made there. We were session musicians before Steelism came up, and we were playing with Caitlin Rose, Wanda Jackson and Andrew Combs. So we’ve always admired bands like the Swampers and people like David Hood and Roger Hawkins. The studio hasn’t changed one bit since the ‘70s. As soon as you walk into the room, you’re transported back to 1972.

Fetzer: It even smells a bit like 1972. It’s different because in Nashville, the business is still so strong, so all the studios have been updated. But there’s not very much business in Muscle Shoals now, so the studio is still the same. You can’t find any place like it in Nashville anymore.

The album title suggests you’re thinking about these influences in geographic terms. Is that something you’re thinking about when you’re writing?

Fetzer: The whole record is like, “Take a trip with Steelism.” Each song is inspired by a different region. The first track is like a Western. Track two is inspired by English music. Track three by California. We can get away with that because there’s no singer.

“Tears of Isabella,” in particular, sounds like it’s all over the map. It starts out in Hawaii, heads over to Spain, then ends up in Hollywood somehow.

Cullum: Since we’re an instrumental band, there’s not much we can say about a song like that. It’s not like, “This song is about breaking up with my girlfriend and having a really rough time.” With us it’s more like, “This is an idea that Jeremy and I had.”

Fetzer: “This song was inspired by a random soul LP we found at Goodwill.” It’s difficult for an instrumental band to describe their non-lyrics.

Cullum: Basically, we just stole from Santo & Johnny and Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell. That’s how music works. We took all these ideas and put them all in a pot. Today we might be listening to records and have an idea for a Roger Miller song. It all comes from listening to so much music. When you think of a new melody or something, subconsciously you’ve stolen that from someone.

You don’t hear that many instrumental bands on the radio anymore.

Cullum: When we were starting the band as an instrumental project, we kept trying to figure out what the last successful instrumental band was. Booker T & the MGs? There has to have been one since then. So it definitely feels like we’re fighting the good fight, and if we got on the radio, it’d be like we won.

I think most instrumental hits have been tied to movies, like “Axel F” in Beverly Hills Cop.

Fetzer: That was the last one, and it definitely helped being tied to a soundtrack. Maybe we’ll end up on the next big movie.

Cullum: Yeah, we’ll be in the next Hunger Games movie. Or the next Twilight Saga. Somebody should get thrown through a brick wall while “The Landlocked Surfer” is playing.

Fetzer: If everything goes to plan, that’s what’s going to happen.

How do these songs play live?

Fetzer: We love the challenge of trying to win over a crowd without a singer. When we kick off a set, the audience will hear the first two songs and get confused. But usually by the third or fourth song, they’re bobbing and dancing.

Cullum: They’re waiting for the frontman to come out. “Oh, there’s no singer. I get it now.”