James Steinle: Live At Hole In The Wall
Have you ever wanted to go to a show by a super talented artist you just discovered, but you haven’t yet been able to coordinate going to a show from your area of the country? I’ve checked map routes and flights more times than I can remember because I wanted to see THAT artist at THAT venue…but for now, I have the answer I need for THIS artist: James Steinle…and it is his new album, James Steinle: Live at Hole in the Wall. This is a remarkable live album, recorded at the legendary venue in Austin that’s been around since 1974, and has the stories to back up its legendary status! When you drop the needle on this album, you can hear that it is just about as close as you can get to being there when you can’t actually get THERE…yet.
I first saw and heard James Steinle on a social media post by Jamie Lin Wilson, and he was wearing the same Texas bluebonnet JLW shirt I had just purchased that day…I mean, there are stranger ways to discover someone, but I just said, “Hey now, WHO is THAT?” I clicked and I listened and I knew I had to find out more. As a side note, I just love how much artists support other artists in this genre-from wearing their merch, to bringing them on tour and sharing the stage for amazing one-of-a-kind collaborations, to making posts about one another’s success…not saying that I wouldn’t have found my way to James’ music in any other way, but that little coincidence made sure I discovered it on that day. Anyway, not too long after my discovery, and if by some divine intervention, I was given the opportunity to interview James and discuss his music. He told me so many cool things that have inspired him and his songwriting, and his story is definitely unique.
Having heard a little about him before, I wanted to know more about the person behind the songs and how spending his formative years abroad gave him such a unique perspective. When asked that question directly, he answered, “My DNA is in the songs I write so that’s an easy way to get to know me...but sometimes that needs a little context. I’m a proud 7th generation Texan that did some time in Germany and the Middle East...thus when I found I had a knack for songwriting, I reckoned that was my calling and an opportunity to do something different.”
His father was a pediatric dentist hired by an oil company. While he treated his patients, James attended school and studied topics that were often reflective of the region. He learned many things about the world from a very different view than many of us know. Three months out of every year they lived abroad, he and his family were required to leave out of respect to the religious customs and culture of the country. His family was fully funded during those three months, so sometimes they would use that time to travel to other countries and explore the rich customs wherever they went, and sometimes they went back to Texas to work on the family’s ranch. While they were home in Texas, it still took some adjusting and was a bit of a culture shock to his family as they had adapted to life outside of what might be deemed as a ‘traditional country raisin’.’ All of it informed James’ upbringing, strongly influenced his lyrical and melodic artistry, and he truly recognizes the privilege he was afforded through this sometimes settled, sometimes nomadic, and very distinctive lifestyle. He confirmed the notion when he closed that part of our conversation, “All that backstory being said, I’m really just trying to articulate my perspective on things. Not saying it’s the truth or right or any crap like that, but I am saying it’s different… and writing songs is how I process that concept of being different. In the beginning, it was a hobby, now it’s sort of become a necessity. I’m always writing and editing songs--and don’t really know how to stop.”
James started his instrumental journey on the piano. He took lessons for four years, but never really connected to the instrument and his effort learning reflected that attitude. Then around the 8th grade, he looked around and noticed that all of his friends were learning the electric guitar off of tablature. He had the, “oh, DUH” moment, and that is where it all began. He actually started playing guitar in quite a different genre, “So my entry into the instrument was kind of through heavy rock stuff. Then I transitioned into the Mississippi Delta blues cats per those heavy rock dudes' recommendations. Then once I made the full circle and returned to the country and folk music styles of playing I grew up hearing...I kind of settled on that.” After discovering that fact, I had a vision of him just ripping into some awesome slide riff like the great Muddy Waters.
When asked about artists that he admires and who have made an impact, James started ticking off a list that is just as diverse as you would expect it to be, transporting across genres and through various musical eras. At first, he started with some of the greats who began their influence on artists long ago, like Guy Clark, Tom Waits, and John Prine. He also mentioned Gillian Welch, Terry Allen and Townes Van Zandt. The list continued to Bob McDill, Steve Goodman, David Olney and ended with Bob Marley. Just when I thought he was finished, he started discussing contemporary artists like Shad Blair, Chris King, Gabe Wootton, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Rodney Hayden, Mike Ethan Messick, Carson McHone, Kathryn Legendre, Tate Mayeux, Zach Pack, Jamie Lin Wilson; and said he could also go on and on. The sheer volume of the people he respects as artists, and who have had a hand in helping him develop into the artist he is now, gives us an idea of just how much the world and the people in it influence him; how he can take it all in, let it marinate in his soul, and pour it out into his songs.
The artist who has truly restored his faith in both the originality and authenticity of great country music songwriting is Ryan Bingham. He received the album, Mescalito, from his sister on the first day it was released. Listening to it brought James right back to his roots, as far as his approach to the storytelling, like Bingham does so cleverly through his songs. Further influenced by specific songs and artists, James mentioned Guy Clark’s “Let Him Roll” as his steady favorite masterpiece. Comparing the way they both tell stories in their songs from start to finish, I can see their similarities in style. He added that Terry Allen’s,“The Beautiful Waitress,” is his favorite love song. Other songs that have “it” are Shad Blair’s, “Prisoner of War,” Richard Dobson’s, ‘Forever, For Always, For Certain,” and Gabe Wooten’s, “Ghosts.” They have moved James as an artist and compelled him to share their greatness with us. I couldn’t abbreviate his list, and had to pass them on because now I have a fantastic new playlist of some artists that I knew and some that I know better now because of his passion for talking about them. Honestly, after seeing this and listening more intently to their songs, I will take James Steinle’s suggestions any day of the week!
As we moved on to his songwriting, he couldn’t help but to share some of his favorites again, and more specifically to the lyric in each song that moved him. I know that I can tell you the lyrics in songs that make me laugh, cry, and clutch my heart because they take my breath away when I hear them performed live. I actually do that, and sometimes get made fun of for my outwardly physical response to music; but for those who can feel it, how music is so deeply tied to emotions, well, when James described the lyrics from songs, you can tell he feels it, too. He said Richard Dobson’s lyric, “Forever don’t mean much in passing, and forgotten don’t mean that it’s done...” blows his mind every single time. He described David Olney’s lyric, “The moon got weak and he soon was gone, the night got sick and died with the dawn, died with the dawn with a drink in his hand, too sick to walk to drunk to stand” as “insane.” Afterward, I listened to it closely, and the imagery conjured from that particular song is “insane,” so I agree! The most badass connection for me was when he specified Townes Van Zandt’s lyric from “Rex’s Blues,” and said it always helps when he needs it, “Ain’t no dark ‘til something shines. I’m bound to leave the dark behind.” That is one of my favorite lyrics from any artist, hands down. Seriously, just think about how powerful that one line is for a minute, especially to someone who needs to hear it.
The beginnings of his songwriting started in high school. At that time, he had just moved back to south Texas after living in Saudi Arabia for almost ten years, and he felt a bit like an outsider as he was working cattle and building fences in VANS slip ons. Songwriting became an outlet for his stories, experiences and feelings he couldn’t communicate to anyone else at that time. He had a coach, Chris King, who was fresh out of Texas A&M and funded his own songwriting by coaching. “I was a big fan of his music and he turned me on to a lot of great stuff, especially bands like Mike & The Moonpies, Jamie Lin Wilson (his A&M classmate), and The Happen-ins, that were playing a bunch in Austin. I’ve always written poems and enjoyed writing, but didn’t latch onto writing songs until around my sophomore year of high school.” After high school, James attended UT in Austin, and being in what some consider the heartland for Texas music, began discovering the greats like Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, and Guy Clark. He said he wondered if he could achieve that caliber of writing, or if he even had something unique to say because to him, “it felt like everyone in contemporary Americana was singing different versions of the same song.” That was his turning point artistically, and he felt his purpose in life was to use his life to give people perspective through his eyes. He hasn’t stopped writing since.
There are fourteen songs on the album, and it starts with an introduction by Laurie Guallardo (KUTX Austin) describing James as a “gentleman beyond his years… and someone who really writes a powerful song.” She sets the tone on just how special the night is about to be, and what was about to go down as they turned the bar into a listening room. After the intro, James just starts right into “Underside” with a gentle, then rising strum, where he begins his first story and asks “Where shall I roam, down in the underside…” He wrote this song from the perspective of someone who has become disenchanted by others who are oblivious to the plight and suffering outside of our often much more privileged lives in this country. It’s a powerful choice to start an album that way and immediately let’s you know that his songs will not shy away from important and meaningful topics or pander to the popular. He is a storyteller. He wants you to think. He wants you to reflect, and he does it well through autobiographical songs, and through the lens of others’ experiences. Honestly, just listen.
When asked about his three favorite songs on the album, James’ direct words are the best way to describe them. First, he discussed the impact of “Three Dark Kings” and how he came to write it while he was studying German at UT. “We were studying this era of post-World War II literature called ‘Trummerliteratur’ (I screwed up on the record by saying it was ‘Trummerfrauen,’ those were the ladies that inspired the movement, not the movement itself). It was this very hopeless and dark period for folks in Europe and Germany who were essentially collateral damage after the fall of the Nazis. A country in absolute disrepair with a globe full of people deeming them all the pit of evil regardless of their involvement. There was this one guy named Wolfgang Börchert who wrote a poem that translates into “The Three Dark Kings,” which was a very dark post-war version of The Three Kings of Orient Are. It blew me away. Because on one hand, you’re thinking ‘How could anyone defend anything remotely associated with the Nazi’s?’ But on the other, you’re like ‘Am I evil for damning everyone in this region to that depth of evil even if that were truly innocent bystanders that were trapped in this place?’ It was a very intriguing thing for me, so I spent a day writing this song that essentially chronicles the events of the song. I do my best to paint the picture and use of stroke of humanity in all of the darkness. One of my favorites to play. Also helps me stay brushed up on my amateur German-speaking chops.” You’ll get to hear that as he sings part of the song in German!
James characterized the second song he named, “Good Life on the Plains” as being in the running for his favorite song he has written to date. “It’s a very plain song (pun intended). Three verses with a line at the end of each, acting as the chorus. Spoken word. No solo section. Just words. I talk about this barbecue joint in my hometown of Pleasanton we used to go a lot when I was younger, before we moved to Saudi Arabia. There was one of those ‘Kaw-Liga’ wooden chiefs in the back I used to be obsessed with that has always kind of made appearances in my dreams. Then the next two verses are based on folks I grew up around. Kind of grandfather figures in my life since I wasn’t close to my dad’s dad and my mother’s dad passed away when I was 3. Essentially...the song identifies three different rural demographics, and in this case different races...and aims to prove that at the end of the day the unifying factor in rural communities is work ethic. I guess I’m trying to say if we really step back and think hard about what every person on this planet wants...it’s just a good life on the plains.”
The third song he mentioned was “Lonesome Hero Blues,” and is the final, and fitting song on the album. He described it as his ode to the plight of the folk singer/songwriter in today’s changing world. He illustrated that plight personally before the last verse of the song as he tells a story about a crappy gig he played in Fredericksburg, Texas, one time. He wrote it specifically about how his songwriting heroes had a pervasive impact on him. “It wasn’t how they wrote songs, not their melodies, but rather what they were seeking to accomplish with their writing. The first time I heard Guy Clark I didn’t think, ‘I want to write songs like this,’ or ‘I want to play guitar like this.’ Rather I thought, ‘I think I have a lot in common with this guy.’ I’m a mediator and an empath by nature. I try and have good tone in the words I write. All the greats were masters of taking their time and processing things down to the point they were palatable but poignant. Their songs had the power to change people's minds. That’s always been the goal. That being said, I really would have loved to have met Guy. It seems like all these folks I admire are passing away every other day. I often think about how I’ll never get to visit with them and shake their hand and tell them what they meant to me. And that hurts. When I say ‘Lonesome Hero’ in this song...it’s pretty much a tip of the hat to that lifestyle. Giving your life for a cause that you know is not the most financially fruitful and stable way to live. They all did it anyway because that was their purpose, and nowadays it’s even harder without the help of record sales...so it feels like even more of a daunting task. I wrote this song on my lunch break one day when the city pound guy was picking up this stray cat from the building next door that’d been living for a couple of weeks in this warehouse. Then that line “All the old dogs are dying, the stray cats in jail” hit me and then 15 minutes later...voila.”
It is always fascinating to me to listen to artists discuss their songs and how they came to be, particularly those they name as their personal favorites. Listening to this album, nearly every song has that potential for me. Songs always hit me differently during the stages of my life, and I tell you, I laughed, had tears well up in my eyes, and clutched my heart throughout my first listen, my second listen, and so on. And from the more relatable lyrics to the all out powerful stories he tells, I just dig it all.
While the three songs James shared are fantastic, and the album is full of amazing songs that will satisfy everyone from the traditional country and folk to the rock and blues lovers, I’d like to highlight two more standouts that further illustrate James’ genre range: “Where You Been” and “Buying Every Round Blues.” During the recording of “Where You Been,” a gorgeously written love song that just gets ya right in the heart, James had to stop and restart again. While he is re-tuning his guitar, he jokes that his friend and fellow songwriter, Gabe Wooten, will perform a poem at some point. To which Gabe yells back the title as “Fuck James Steinle,” as the crowd laughed, but when James began to play, everyone hushed up quickly. It starts with the first question that is the same as the title of the song, and full of imagery like “...the darkest night is the light that brought you in…where you been?” and ends with “...all I need is a big ol’ shining grin when I ask you, where you been?” When the song is over, he sends a cheers out to the crowd. I absolutely loved this love song.
The other song, “Buying Every Round Blues,” is just a gritty, blues song that had me bopping my head and tapping my foot to the beat. James said it was one of his older songs, and reflects his propensity to drink too much and blow all of his dough in honky tonks. Well…that happens sometimes, right? The bluesy rhythm in the guitar and the occasional growl in James’ voice completely sets that funky tone… like you are in the bar alongside him just drinking a shot and a beer and “tasting that freedom!” At the end of this fun drinking song, he again sends a cheers out to the crowd after getting a Ft. Worth pour, “Lord have mercy!”
I wanted to honor this just released album and just enjoy where James is right now, but I had to ask him one last question, “So…What’s next?” His answer was both surprising, and not at all surprising, because he is a fascinating dude and obviously a hard-working, passionate singer-songwriter with a lot to say. “After this record, I’ll just be working my day job and trying to find a new place to live. I’m in the mixing stages of my sophomore studio-LP. I somehow, through a random sequence of luck, got connected with Bruce Robison who took a liking to my writing and offered to produce the record. We cut it 100% live and analogue to 2” tape out at his studio, “The Bunker,” in Lockhart, Texas. No computers and off the grid. We got together and picked out the band members, filtered out the songs we wanted to be on it, and got it done in 3 days. It was completely my style...a little rough around the edges but all about the feeling, lyrics, and performance. I’m really excited with how it’s turning out. We’re planning to put that sucker out in early 2020. Until then, I'm working the day job, working cattle on my family’s ranch, riding my unicycle, and writing songs…”
I’m certainly thankful that James picked up a guitar and started composing and performing songs that were complex and thoughtful and raw and refined…and just DAMN GOOD. I don’t know how much else I can say about his great work, except to let it all just speak for itself. Go get his album, listen to it in a place where you can sit back with a beverage of your choice, and you can enjoy the storytelling, his guitar playing, and his witty banter with the audience. If you close your eyes, you will feel like you are sitting amongst the crowd at Hole in the Wall wherever you are!
Recorded LIVE at the Hole in the Wall, 2538 Guadalupe St., Austin, TX on April 12, 2019.
All songs written, composed and performed by James Steinle
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Andrew Hernandez (Arroyo Audio)
Art by Chris King
Special thanks to Will Tanner, Lynn Cowles, Laurie Gallardo, Tate Mayeux, Carson McHone, all the Hole in the Wall staff that helped me make it happen, and all of my friends and supporters of Country Country. Made it a night to remember. Long live the Hole.
Article Cover Photo Courtesy of Weston Smith
For More Information on James Steinle: www.jamessteinle.com