It’s a short drive from Nashville, TN, to Muscle Shoals, AL: 125 miles, or about two hours if your foot’s on the leaden side, and you’ve left one musical Mecca for another. Thanks to Nashville instrumental duo Steelism, though, that gap is bridged in the time it takes to listen to a track. Comprising guitarist Jeremy Fetzer, pedal steel player Spencer Cullum and backed by some of Nashville’s finest young musicians, Steelism blends an eclectic array of vintage and modern influences to create instrumental music that truly sounds like nothing else.
Though Steelism is new to the music scene, Cullum and Fetzer are not, having backed artists like Wanda Jackson, Johnny Fritz, Rayland Baxter and Andrew Combs. The two met while touring the U.K. with Nashville songstress Caitlin Rose, quickly bonding over their shared love for classic movie soundtrack composers like Ennio Morricone and ‘60s instrumental acts like Booker T. and the M.G.s, The Ventures and Pete Drake. Writing together between sound checks, the duo realized it was time for the sidemen to become frontmen, and Steelism was born.
“Steelism allows us to musically explore in our writing and take performance chances we couldn’t get away with in any other project,” Fetzer says.
Though the two grew up on different continents (Cullum hails from Essex, England; Fetzer from Canton, OH), Cullum and Fetzer were cut from the same musical cloth, as becomes immediately evident whenever they take the stage. Their debut EP The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar was met with critical acclaim, with American Songwriter’s Sean Maloney calling Steelism “instantly recognizable – surf, country, blues, all steeped in soul and heavy on the grooves – but astoundingly outside the contemporary vernacular.”
“We’ve always been into the idea of playing a strong melody—something you can hum—rather than soloing,” Cullum explains.
The duo’s full-length debut 615 to FAME releases via Single Lock Records (founded by Ben Tanner of the Alabama Shakes, John Paul White of The Civil Wars and Will Trapp), with marketing and distribution from Thirty Tigers, on September 16, 2014. Half recorded at Muscle Shoals’ historic FAME Studios, where Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding all tracked hits, 615 to FAME was produced by Fetzer and Cullum with co-production from Ben Tanner, and contributions from longtime Nashville-based collaborators Jon Radford (drums) and Michael Rinne (bass). Featuring 10 original instrumentals and one cover, 615 to FAME announces Steelism as one of Nashville’s most exciting new acts.
Steelism’s compositions don’t need lyrics to tell stories. “Marfa Lights” is a krautrock-inspired instrumental influenced by German bands like Neu! and Can, with its title taken from the paranormal lights of the Marfa, TX sky. “Cat’s Eye Ring” is fit for a Spaghetti Western, named for a ring belonging to a mother protecting her children during the Battle of the Alamo. The album’s only cover track is the swirling, psychedelic Pete Drake number “The Spook,” which showcases Cullum’s faithful but updated homage to the late Nashville pedal steel legend and Fetzer’s heavier take on the track’s opening refrain.
As Ben Tanner explains, “Great instrumental rock and roll, sadly, has become a lost art, but Steelism is resurrecting that tradition and adding new chapters of its own, and while they may not have a singer, they certainly have great things to say.”