Jim Kapusta, a retired steelworker from western Pennsylvania, had no idea that the YouTube tour of his abandoned steel mill would one day land on the opening track of a country artist’s album. However, producer Luke Laird had a vision for the opening lines for Steve Moakler’s third studio project, Steel Town. Like Kapusta, Moakler embodies the spirit of Pittsburgh, their shared hometown, and wants to transport fans there in his latest offering. Steel Town is Moakler’s first fully-realized country album, a natural evolution from his singer-songwriter past.
“There were country songs sprinkled in on all of the albums previously, but this is the most decisive and a realization of all of those moments,” Moakler says of his previous work. The LP focuses on his roots, which he explains is a pillar of the country music genre. Growing up in Pittsburgh, his stories and different lifestyle give him a perspective all his own: “Early on when I moved to Nashville it seemed so cool to grow up on a farm, driving tractors. It’s so romantic, and for a little while I felt I was not qualified to sing country music since I didn’t grow up in one of those rural southern towns, but I really just had to put that aside and decide that I have my own background with country music. It’s just as real, just a different perspective.”
The album includes re-releases of five songs off his 2016 self-titled EP, and adds six more tracks to form a well-executed project with his signature easy-listening style. He feels that the debut EP could be considered side A, similar to a vinyl album where then the newer songs would be the second installment, a side B. “When I make records I want them to be the kind of albums that you listen to start to finish,” he explains. “If a song is on there, it is on there for a reason to complete the picture or the story, so I wasn’t going for a specific vibe but I was going for something that was complete and well-balanced.” While “Love Drunk” and “Siddle’s Saloon” are catchy, stuck-in-your-head tunes, “Wheels” and “Summer Without Her” are more reflective, allowing the listener to slow down, listen closely to the lyrics and beg for repeat spins.
With the record exemplifying working hard, being proud of your roots and always needing a place in this world to call home, “Steel Town” is the quintessential song to start off the eleven tracks. Written with Casey Beathard, the track highlights Moakler’s pride in his hometown and displays how he much feels a product of the place he grew up. Most people would associate Pittsburgh with its role in producing steel for the country, but he reminds us that although times have changed, the abundance of steel (in both its literal and metaphoric senses) is leftover in the people of the town.
“There are times in life when it is really helpful to believe that maybe you have some steel in you, and when you are up against hard times or are daring to dream about something that scares you or whatever battle you are fighting, it is helpful to have some steel in you,” he passionately tells us. He says people of Pittsburgh were the driving force and inspiration behind the entire record.
The lead single, “Wheels,” happens to be one of Moakler’s favorite tracks he’s ever recorded. Written with Caitlyn Smith and Gordie Sampson, the progression of life is told through the simple primitive idea of a wheel. “It’s one of the most exciting feelings as a songwriter when you find that angle on a simple idea, it is just so freaking simple, you just turn the key and it opened a whole world and then it was obvious after that. We could really tell this whole story of growing up with this image,” he remembers of the writing session. The song, a reflection on how quickly life passes, marries the idea of looking back at the past and looking towards the future, as well as what you do with the time you have left.
“But they don’t slow down, the speed picks up / You start wishing you were young as soon as you grow up / And the farther you roll, the faster they spin / They drive you away and bring you home again / I swear sometimes it feels / Like life’s just a set of wheels.”
Along with Barry Dean, Luke Laird and several other songwriters, Moakler co-wrote ten of the eleven songs on Steel Town. (The hit “Suitcase” is the outlier of the bunch, as it was actually penned by Thomas Rhett.) Tapping into a more personal level of songwriting, each song tells a story that he has experienced himself or a situation he’s sorting through now. For example, “Siddle’s Saloon” tells the tale of Moakler’s grandfather’s bar, spinning images of a rowdy good time on a Saturday night:
“It’s been a long week and we’re glad you came by / For the stories and punch lines and cold I.C. Light / Well if you’re not here, we’ll be asking ’bout you / Come Saturday night at Siddle’s Saloon / Grandpa and his brothers, back when they were young / They’d come down here once they unloaded those trucks / And the word got around and the rowdy crowd grew / To what we know now as Siddle’s Saloon.”
Moakler recalled last October, when he had the honor of singing the national anthem and performing “Steel Town” in front of friends, family and Steeler Nation fans. “As far as my family is concerned I like won a Grammy that day, that was it for them,” he proudly explains. Although he is now residing in Nashville, Pittsburgh will always be home: “I miss it more and more with time, but I would say I feel more and more at home in Nashville. But it doesn’t change the fact that every time I go back, I can see that is what makes this place so special.”
For slow drives down back roads: “Steel Town,” “Siddle’s Saloon,” “School”
For sitting on your childhood bedroom floor going through old photos: “Wheels,” “Gold”
For drinking a big glass of red wine: “Jealous Girl,” “Summer Without Her”, “Hearts Don’t Break That Way”
For getting ready for a hot date: “Love Drunk”, Just Long Enough”, “Suitcase”
Grab Steel Town on iTunes now and catch Steve Moakler on the Highway Finds Tour with Drew Baldridge and Smithfield making its way across the country. For tour dates check out his website.