To better grasp the spirited musical mindset of Randy Steele as he continues his remarkable rise as a solo artist, you have to understand the geography around his hometown of Chattanooga, TN. The longtime frontman for the popular band Slim Pickins Bluegrass titled his critically acclaimed 2017 full length debut Songs from the Suck after Suck Creek, which merges with the Tennessee River close to his home. In the early days before TVA dammed the rivers, it was a notorious section of rapids that would break boats. Just below that is Moccasin Bend, a 1,000 acre peninsula sitting on the edge of the river – and the inspiration for the title of Moccasin Bender, Steele’s new 6-track EP follow-up that blends his passions for acoustic based storytelling and banjo picking with more raucous, slide guitar-driven songs.
Leading Slim Pickins Bluegrass since 2008, Steele has held court with legendary live performances on some of the Southeast’s most prominent stages, and played everywhere from California to Belgium and Holland. His popularity among traditionalists in that world initially led him to hesitate about launching a concurrent solo career with tracks featuring slide guitar and drums – but the critical acclaim, festival invites award recognition he received for Songs from the Suck has inspired him to continue on his inspiring dual journey. The 16th Annual Independent Music Awards has nominated Songs from the Suck for Bluegrass Album of the Year and earned him selection as one of ten top emerging artists by the Blast on the Bay Songwriter’s Festival on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The reviews for Songs from the Suck include praise from No Depression, the journal of roots music, which called it a “bluegrass album that falls under some of the easiest listen to music of its kind that you’ll ever hear. . .it’s a great effort to combine just the right elements to make an album that has that overall Americana and country appeal but still true to bluegrass and it shows appreciation to such listeners, with a lot of blues to keep it grounded in its roots.” Middle Tennessee Music (MTM) calls it “good ole fashioned bluegrass which acts as the soundtrack for Randy’s excellent storytelling.” Neufutur.com added, “Listeners will immediately be able to hear hints of Alabama and Flatt & Scruggs here, but Steele’s hook here is how well he inserts his own unique sound. The production is sharp enough to allow each element to shine solely, or to contribute to a cohesive and coherent sound.”
Moccasin Bender builds powerfully on this momentum, with Steele finding the perfect way to bridge his two worlds with a new, heartfelt banjo and vocal version of the mystery infused road song “Adam and Rose” – the original, faster tempo version of which appears on the 2013 self-titled group album Slim Pickins. The album’s first single “Mabbit Springs” offers a full production full of banjo, steel guitar, fiddle and drums. It’s a story song about a man making a deal with God to spare his son’s life, inspired by the narrative on a sign on Signal Mountain about a long ago true-life moment chronicling how Mabbitt Springs got its name. Steele shines a spotlight on his love for American literature on the spirited “Rummies,” which captures in song the story Ernest Hemingway told in his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not about a fishing boat captain out of Key West, FL who runs contraband between Cuba and Florida.
Rounding out the EP are the hard-edged argument song “Big Talkin’ Woman,” whose Merle Haggard-esque vibe he likens to “sped up reggae”; and the dark, haunting ballad “The Age of Ben” about a son whose longing for his long lost prisoner mother ends badly with an inherited heroin addiction. “I like the fact that with Moccasin Bender, I was able to build on the sound and storytelling elements that people responded to on Songs from the Suck,” Steele says. “It felt good to take that next step without having to do something completely different, while building on both my full-band setup and my more intimate solo style. I’m always aiming for the true star to be not the instrumentation or my voice, but the songwriting.”