Steelism is Spencer Cullum Jr. and Jeremy Fetzer. Half British and half American, they recorded half of their debut, 615 to FAME, in Nashville and the other half at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The instrumental release was the third official release to the Single Lock Records catalog, a label founded by John Paul White, Ben Tanner and Will Trapp in Florence that has already distributed St. Paul and the Broken Bones’s Half the City.
Steelism cut their teeth backing other Nashville artists, but decided to release an album of their own creation. Steel player Spencer Cullum Jr., the British half of the duo, sat with Weld to discuss the attraction to FAME and the attraction to the lost art of creating an instrumental record.
Weld: You’re doing something that’s unconventional, a lost art. Why did you decide to go forth with this as an instrumental project rather than continue backing other people?
Spencer Cullum Jr.: I don’t know. I guess – I’m a steel player and Jeremy’s a guitarist and we both like writing melodies on those instruments. And we both love instrumental bands, so it felt normal. And we had so much downtime in touring and stuff like that, we would just write instrumentals. I think every musician does it; every side musician writes riffs or instrumental parts, but I guess we just took it seriously and it started from there.
Weld: How did you cross paths with Ben Tanner and John Paul White and end up putting the record out on Single Lock?
SC: Well, we got a call from a guy named Lee Shook who works for Birmingham Mountain Radio. He called us down to do a video for him and do a show at the Parkside, and then he showed Ben Tanner the tapes and said there’s this new label that his friend Ben owned and is opening with John Paul White, and we talked to Ben and he was like, “Yeah, let’s record it.”
So it came from there. Lee Shook connected the dots and then with Ben, he said, “Yeah, let’s make an instrumental record,” and then we twisted his arm for us to record it at FAME because he had some connections there.
Weld: How did the FAME decision come?
SC: Well, we knew that he worked there – Ben used to work there as an engineer, and I guess me and Jeremy were like, “Hey! We want to record at FAME! Please, sir! Please let us record at FAME!”
He was like, “Okay, we can do that.” We managed to get some studio time there, but we already had half the record finished in Nashville, so I guess it kind of worked out.
Weld: Why was recording part of it at FAME important to you?
SC: We’re just big fans of it – The Swampers and all of the music that was recorded here. When it comes to session musicians in the ’60s and ’70s, at FAME, it’s the equivalent to an American guy coming to Abbey Road. [We] were Brits that loved American music. I don’t think that it was “important,” just a geeky thing that Jeremy and me wanted to do; just being selfish, “We want to do this!”
Weld: What originally brought you to the States?
SC: I was – I learned steel guitar about 10 years ago [from] a guy named B.J. Cole, who is a steel player for…he played on “Tiny Dancer”, the Elton John song. He taught me steel and I started getting into pedal steel from there and a lot of pop music that had it, British pop music like Elton John and George Harrison. I started getting into it from there and I started playing in pubs in England. Then I started doing a lot with a lot of artists from Nashville that wanted a steel player to tour in Europe; I started playing with Caitlin Rose, and Jeremy was with Caitlin Rose at the time. And I was playing with Andrew Combs; I was doing a lot of work with Nashville artists and I thought, “Oh, well, you know, I might as well move to Nashville and be a pedal steel player.” It was a drag to drag my steel guitar around the London underground scene. That convinced me.
Weld: Is this home now or do you have designs on going back?
SC: No, this is home to me. Nashville is home. I miss a pub and a pint of Guiness, but Nashville is still home. You’ve got good Mexican food here, which London doesn’t do very well.
Weld: What are your thoughts on the evolving Americana scene that you have been a sideman to – throughout Nashville, Alabama and the Southeast?
SC: It’s great. It’s fantastic. England loves that style of music. It’s crazy how someone like Caitlin Rose, Robert Ellis, Alabama Shakes – they come over to England and they get such a good reception. There’s a whole story behind it – the American Dream is to see it – they’re still in touch with great classics and great American music. Europeans, especially British people, love that. It’s very true to themselves. America has this idea that – like, American tourists go over to England and see history. Buildings and sculptures and artists. But in England, and Europe, they’re fascinated with American history – especially myself, that’s what drew me to America, because such a big part of American history is music. All these acts are still carrying that on, and I have a great respect for that.
The whole idea of Americana is cringe-worthy, but even if it has been given a tag, everything gets given a tag. At the end of the day those acts are playing great American music, or just great roots music. And around the world, people have great respect for them.
Weld: Who are your three favorite steel players of all time?
SC: Oh [expletive]. Um. Pete Drake. Sneaky Pete. There’s a lot of Petes in here. And I really like Lloyd Green. But Pete Drake is number one. He’s the guy. He had great solo pedal steel records. A lot of pedal steel records are not very good. They’re cheesy. They’re bad. But Pete Drake’s were more instrumental records, and I always liked that. He had a great idea for melody.
Weld: You’ve developed a great relationship with Birmingham and you’ve been here a lot. What do you attribute that to and how have you enjoyed your time spent here?
SC: Like you were saying about Americana music and Alabama and Nashville and whatnot: there’s a lot of music fans there. When I first came to the States and I was playing in a few bands and I was living up in Detroit, then I moved to Nashville. This was years ago. I came to Birmingham and there were some fantastic bands there. One of my first gigs I ever played in when I came to America was The Nick. If I remember, the Dextateens played there. This was about five years ago and it was such a good scene for rock and roll. It was like a Southern Detroit but it had great rock and roll: Vulture Whale, Dexateens, 13 Ghosts – I always thought they were fantastic. It’s a great, rich musical history.
Everyone in Alabama has a good vibe about them. I don’t know – just relaxed. Nice people.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
SC: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m a Dead Head, I don’t care. So The Dead. Beach Boys. Area Code 6-1-5, although they’re really unknown, but they’re my favorite instrumental band.
I’m going to stick to bands. I like that. It makes me wrack my brain more.
Sly and the Family Stone.