By Darren Tromblay
You’ll have to forgive the slightly uncomfortable reaction you may see from budding country music singer/songwriter Steve Moakler if you happen to be around him when there is a fax machine within his line of sight.
To Moakler, who grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the clanking piece of technology isn’t just a deliverer of words, numbers and illegible ink blots on paper, it’s an honest-to-God time machine that whirs him back to a moment in time when he thought his dream of being a country music star had gone up in smoke.
He remembers it well. His first record deal on the line, he stood with his then-lawyer, waiting for the details of the contract to come across the fax machine from an interested record label.
“I’ll never forget watching the deal come through. My lawyer literally was crossing out entire paragraphs and adding zeros — in my favor, of course — onto the contract,” Moakler said in a phone interview.
At the time, he thought nothing of it. The head of the record label, however, was less than enthused when he received the return fax that was marked with requested changes.
“He called me and was really insulted, saying he thought we had a relationship. He gave me an ultimatum and said, ‘You can work with this attorney, but you can’t work for us. You can’t do both, so you’re going to have to decide.’ ”
It was a crossroads moment for the young Moakler. One direction was instant gratification for the cost of his soul. The other direction was a much longer road, a virtual blank slate filled with God-only-knows what.
Moakler took a chapter from his Steel Town football brethren the Steelers, and did what Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann did so many times on the field decades earlier — he went long.
“It was one of the smarter things I’ve ever done,” Moakler said in retrospect.
Years later, Moakler’s patience is beginning to reap dividends. Thanks in part to the success of last year’s “Steel Town” album, he landed a coveted slot on the Tim McGraw and Faith Hill Soul2Soul World Tour, which in turn boosted his Nashville status. Wanting to take advantage of the momentum, Moakler began cutting tracks for a new album, the result of which will be the forthcoming, “Born Ready,” set to be released in June.
The road has indeed been long, Moakler admits, as he prepares to head back out on the tour trail, which will take him around the Midwest and include a stop at Wooly’s in Des Moines on May 3.
“My career has been kind of slow and steady, but I wouldn’t do it any other way,” he said.
ListenIowa touched base with Moakler to discuss the new album, writing for other artists, and his involvement in Free The Birds, a grassroots collective effort that fights human sex trading and helps those in recovery.
You’re from Pittsburgh, which is a far cry from where you are now in Nashville. Where did your musical acumen come from that eventually led you here?
My mother is a nurse, and my dad is an architect who had his own business, worked from home and had an office in our basement. He had a really great record collection, and I’d kind of hang out at his desk while he was working, and I’d listen to the Eagles, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, sprinkled in with Garth Brooks and Vince Gill. Lyric-based stuff. Great singers and songwriters. I really fell in love with the lyrics in music. I started playing guitar and writing songs when I was 14. As soon as I would learn a chord, I was writing a song with it, which was pretty unusual. We had bands in middle school and high school and took it as far as we could.
Did you know at that point that this is what you wanted to do?
I knew that I was on fire about writing songs and performing. I got offered an independent record deal early on, which I turned down, and that was devastating at the time.
How is that you turned down a record deal early in your career? That would seem to go against all logic.
The record company was out of Orlando, and it was an umbrella company of Warner Bros. There was a publishing deal attached, too. It was real. They wanted to work with us and said that I could use their attorney or find my own. I knew nothing about this side of it, but knew enough to find an attorney of my own. I got this guy from Missouri who had a reputation of being a real artist-friendly attorney, and he took the time to hear my story and look at my deal. That deal didn’t work out the way I thought it would, though. (laughs)
That’s a tough spot to be put in.
It wasn’t what I was envisioning. I was thinking I was going to be on a tour bus, making music videos and all that. I could have taken the deal, but the attorney said, “I think you have more potential than this deal could give you, but I’ll also tell you it’s going to be a long road. I wouldn’t get in bed with the first person who wants to sleep with you. If you want to walk through it, I’ll help you do it.” It was very hard, but I turned down a record deal. And I haven’t been offered one since. (laughs) To let go of that and choose the long way was a tough thing to do, but I’m glad I did it.
And that was probably a good introduction to the business side of things.
I knew nothing. That was a harsh reality. This can be a heartbreaking industry to be in. But I was still so young that I was still incredibly hopeful and resilient. In some ways I’m proud of the fact we have been able to move forward without a label.
So the deal collapsed, and your dreams go up in smoke. What did you do at that point?
I went on and made an independent record, and fortunately a couple of songs were picked up for a TV show and a movie. I had enough of a fan base that I could use Kickstarter to help make my second record, and a couple of songs from that one got on TV shows as well. I was out there building an audience, getting the small victories.
Did getting those little “bites” of having your songs on TV shows and movies here and there ever give you the thought that maybe that’s the direction you should be headed?
Yeah, it’s like when you catch a fish, you go, “Let’s go back there some more.” (laughs) I never really drastically really changed lanes on account of those things happening, though. I kind of took them as “God winks,” or little encouragements that help you keep going.
And then along came Dierks Bentley who picked a song of yours to record. How important was that?
That was about eight years later that a song I wrote with Travis Meadows called “Riser” ended up getting recorded by Dierks. It was his album’s title track and my first big break. I was still the “indie songwriter guy,” but that was a huge moment.
Is there a difference for you artistically to get your songs picked up and recorded by someone else as opposed to keeping them for yourself and going out there and performing them on your own?
They’re both things that I aspire to. I considered myself a country song writer before I was ever able to say I was a country artist. I just love songs. Anytime an artist at that level wants to sing one of your songs, it’s a huge honor, and it’s something I celebrate. But getting to sing your own song, in your own style, and getting to be that guy on stage that gets to see the lips singing the words, that’s a really fulfilling and special thing. It’s an honor to get your songs recorded by other people, but it’s really emotional when you see people singing your song back to you and loving the way you do it.
Last year’s “Steel Town” album really pushed you forward, moreso than anything you’ve done.
Yeah, before that it felt like we were moving inch by inch, but that one was a big pass (football reference). We got a lot of yards out of that record. (laughs). Most of that came from a single song, “Suitcase,” that, although it didn’t make a huge splash on FM radio, it made a really big splash on Sirius-XM radio, which created a whole wave for that album. It’s still something I’m grateful for.
And now you’re at the point where you can keep the momentum going, and you’ve got your next album, “Born Ready,” set for release in June. How did it feel going into the studio to follow up “Steel Town”?
It’s funny that “Steel Town” was about my hometown, but it really took me on the road more than anything I’d done before. That’s the setting for the new record. “Steel Town” was the hardest we’d ever toured, and it put us in a new landscape. I’ve always toured, but not to that extent where I covered this much ground and experienced the highs and lows that come from that. I think that’s the theme in this album, closing the distance from where you are and where you want to be. That could be as literal as a road sometimes, or it could be the road that we’re all on. I hope these songs can be companions for people on their journeys. Sonically, I think this record comes from the same garden as “Steel Town,” with a lot of the same people involved, and same songwriters. But I think we’ve pushed the boundaries out a little further. There are some songs that lean a little harder into the traditional country sound, and some songs that lean a little harder to a more anthemic, rock sound.
Are there any moments on the album that you were particularly proud of when it was all said and done?
There are a lot. There’s one song called “Thirty,” which to me is a coming of age song. I wrote it the week of my 30th birthday. I really love that song. It might be my favorite, but it changes on a monthly basis. (laughs)
With the popularity of your brand of country music, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish one act from another at times. How do you separate yourself from the rest of the pack at this point?
I didn’t grow up in a traditional country background, having been raised outside of Pittsburgh and born in New Jersey. Sometimes I might wish I grew up on a farm and listened to Hank Williams like everybody else, but that’s just not my story. I’m really learning to embrace that, lean into that, and have an absolute love and admiration for country music and its history. I hope I’m finding my own grip on the genre while remaining true to what and who I am.
Do you “lyric police” yourself at any point and intentionally avoid producing songs about gravel roads and pickup trucks and the common denominators in today’s country music? Or is it a case of whatever flows, flows?
I’m always a critic. As we ‘re creating, we’re also criticizing, and I try to let the creators speak more than the critic, at least until the song is done. I don’t really think of my music in terms of everything else that’s going on. I just ask myself if it feels like me and is believable, real, honest and a song I want to sing for a long time. That’s my bar. It’s such an amazing community in Nashville, and there are so many great artists. I feel like there is room for so many more styles than there has ever been. You can get excited about different trends, and that all plays into things, but at the end of the day, though, nothing makes it onto the record without me going, “This is me.”
How did you get involved in the Free The Birds effort, a cause that is fighting human sex trading and helping those who have suffered through it?
There are so many non-profits in the field who are doing great work of fighting human sex trade and bringing restoration and healing to people who have been through that. This is just a fundraising partnership with our fans. I bring a birdhouse on tour, and we have it on the merch table. We invite people to drop a few bucks in there, or sometimes we’ll have merchandise we sell, or the actual birdhouses. I’ve built well over 150 birdhouses, and we sell them for $50-$75 each and all the proceeds go to the non-profits who are doing that work. I don’t want to create any more competition for the people who are out there doing great work; I just want to be able to help. There’s a quote by Jacques Deval that says, “God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.” It kind of sums up what is the root of most evil in the world, specifically with this issue. I see the birdhouse as an intervention with people who want to be on the good guy’s team.
Steve Moakler’s “Born Ready” Tour Dates:
May 3 – Des Moines, Iowa @ Wooly’s
May 4 – Lincoln, Neb. @ The Single Barrel
May 5 – St. Paul, Minn. @ Turf Club
May 10 – Madison, Wis. @ High Noon Saloon
May 11 – Milwaukee, Wis. @ The Rave II
May 12 – Springfield, Ill. @ Boondocks
May 17 – Grand Rapids, Mich. @ The Stache
May 18 – Chicago, Ill. @ Joe’s on Weed Street
May 19 – Detroit, Mich. @ The Shelter