He’s always like this: upbeat, excited, and willing to engage anyone who comes his way. His personality resembles the warmth and hospitality you would feel in a small Texas town. He projects the same attentiveness and focus that he used as a young kid ranching with his dad in South Texas. This attentiveness, accompanied with sincerity, has served him well for songwriting. It’s turned him into a student of the Americana space, the genre he uses to describe his sound. Americana encompasses every sound brought by Roots Music, Jazz, Blues, Country, Western Swing, and Folk — so through Americana he isn’t tied down. If he sits to write a blues song, he can, because he isn’t trapped into the notion of solely being a country artist.
He’s honest about this approach and the sentiments resonate in his music. He's unwilling to fill another space in the industry for what he views as artists who are simply trying to make it big, even though he knows his approach may take more time than doing the “red dirt meme,” where Steinle could get a band behind him. “They’d all look cool. They’d all wear denim jackets. They’d all have the sweet fucking hair. We’d all sing, get sponsored by Huey and all of that,” he says. “And that’s fine, but that’s business. That’s entertainment. That’s not music.”
Steinle gathered much of this approach from his visits to Luckenbach, Texas. A city that’s southeast of Fredericksburg in the Texas hill country and known as a hub for country music. The authentic kind, where Texas legends like Jerry Jeff Walker and artists like Ryan Bingham found a home at some point in their life within the boundaries of Hondo Crouch’s self-made paradise. There he says he learned how to improve, the meaning of a song, and the importance of actually putting forth effort to write a quality song and not just something that is going to sell. “If you really write something that you care about, and you put effort into it, it will eventually sell,” he believes.
His approach is already paying off. He’s one of the younger acts in the Americana music space in Austin, but in the short amount of time he’s been playing shows — around three years — he’s earned respect from local peers and credible musicians throughout the community. And he’s done so by cutting his teeth. He spends many nights playing for audiences of none, in front of people who are talking instead of paying attention to his music. Often times attendees don’t have any interest in his music other than background noise as they socialize. “There are nights where you want to put down the guitar and never play again,” he says. This is another reason why he writes songs he cares about. “If you go up there and nobody’s listening, at least you’re practicing and getting better at stuff you meant.”
Steinle doesn’t want to push an agenda, or play red dirt or Nashville style country music just for the sake of winning over ears and trying to emulate a sound that already works in the market. “If I was just trying to build my image, I would have already quit a long time ago,” he starts. “Some people can fucking do it, but usually they get tired and quit or bribe someone and jump the ladder.”
So, for three years Steinle has played whatever show he can get, no matter the kind of gig. Roadhouse, honky tonk, free gigs, house parties, country clubs, tailgates, biker bars, clothing shops, you name it. He’ll play it because it’s practice. He’s okay with paying his dues, and notable listeners are already tuning in.
Recently, his friend and songwriting hero Noel McKay invited him to a tribute for Guy Clark shortly after the notable songwriter passed away. The event was at Threadgill's, the original location on the North Side of Austin. James was the youngest artist in the building, surrounded by some “studs” of the local country music space. The artists in attendance went to the stage to play a song each. Steinle chose one of the more technical songs of Guy’s, his favorite, a song called “Let Him Roll,” about a poor drunk man from Dallas who falls in love with a “whore” named Alice. The woman turns the man down saying that she’s dedicated to her lifestyle and refuses to quit being a prostitute. After being turned down, the man kills himself.
They hold a funeral for the man, and the funeral is essentially the man venting. This was a song Guy Clark wrote about after meeting the man, and Steinle loves it because though the tale is regurgitation, Clark organized and rhymed it. “It’s just one of the most beautiful songs, and you just sit there and listen to every word that’s spoke. It’s not fluff, there’s no marshmallow filling. Every word has meaning.” After James played the song, he returned to his seat at the table with the younger crowd in attendance. Across the room a woman at the VIP table made eye contact with Steinle and gave him the universal signal for “come here.” Steinle went to sit at her table. “That was beautiful to see someone your age have that much heart about that, “ the woman said. Steinle was taken aback, and says the compliment meant a lot considering the grind he’s been on the last few years. This was one of the first moments a whole room made no sound and everyone listened to every word Steinle had to say.
Steinle returned to his table without another thought. A friend sitting nearby reached over and gave Steinle the news. That complement had just come from Jan Clark, Guy Clark’s sister.
Steinle’s father is a pediatric dentist by trade who ran a private practice in Jourdanton, Texas. He also worked as an instructor at UT’s Health Science Center in San Antonio, specializing in cleft palate reconstruction, a dental issue that is prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A recruiter found him, and the Steinle family moved overseas when James was in kindergarten. Even though Steinle was born in San Antonio and raised on his ranch in Pleasanton, Texas, and returned for high school there, his formative years took place in Saudi.
He spent his early years and summers in Texas working on the ranch with his dad. His mother’s family is from South Texas, and has been ranching since shortly after the annexation of the State. They were in the McMullen county area when the the only town in the county, Tilden, was still referred to as "Dogtown" because there were so many ranchers dogs running wild through the desolate outpost. Even though James didn't always have the proper attire, sometimes wearing skateboarding clothing while he worked, he was still out in the pens pushing cows in the chute and vaccinating them with his dad. He just didn’t always look the part. “I just love the culture of ranching and getting shit done,” he chimes in. “Making the world a better place because you’re doing stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the ranch or not, as long as you’re doing something, you’re making it better.”
Though James was born in Texas and went to high school near his hometown in Jourdanton, Texas, he says he was basically raised in Saudi Arabia since he moved there so young. But it was never home. He would go to Saudi, and then back to Texas, part of the reason why he had no trouble reintegrating with culture in the United States. “These kids who never made an effort to integrate or be a part of society in the states, they come back and they look like a bunch of gringos walking around but they’re actually Saudis at heart. So they just like get caught up in the wrong stuff with the wrong crowd,” he mentions of some of his childhood peers.
While he was in Saudi he says he went through every phase under the sun. “You have two choices when you grow up in Saudi, you basically either smoke hash and sit around or learn how to do shit.” Steinle chose the latter. He skateboarded. He inline skated. He rode dirt bikes. He went arrow head hunting. “I have a bunch of buddies who’ve been in and out of rehab for that shit. It’s pretty sad actually. They never made an effort (to integrate back to the states). This was always home for me so the transition was pretty easy,” he says. It was different when he went from Saudi Arabia lifestyle to small town Texas, but he knew it, that’s why he went home every winter and summer he’d go back to Texas to work on the ranch and see friends and family. But a lot of his peers are having a hard time coping with not being able to return to Saudi Arabia. Since their parents retired, they can’t go “home” to Saudi. They could only return if they had a work iqama, or work visa, and they’re hard to get unless hired by a company in the country. So these kids aren’t able to return. When their parents leave, they leave too. When it ended kids either went to boarding school, or they went back to the states and went to public school. So, when the school system ended in ninth grade, Steinle went to public school.
Steinle returns to hand me the beer. He has a small, muscular frame, a surprise considering his diet consists mostly of cheap whiskey and beer from the various music venues he frequents. Sometimes he’ll eat a free Philly Cheesesteak sandwich like the one at the food truck behind the Buzz Mill, but Steinle isn’t always so eager to trade his liquid diet for a solid one.
He sits back down and begins chatting to me. About how a kid raised in Saudi Arabia stumbled on songwriting. He mentions his high school coach in Jourdanton, Chris King, who coached football, track and field, and assisted in basketball. King was a songwriter himself and he turned Steinle on to the craft. Steinle remembers sending him the first song he wrote, “I expected him to be like, ‘holy shit, if you ever send me something like that again I will report you to the principal,’ ”Steinle jokes. But King did the opposite. He imparted some sage advice that carries Steinle to this day. He told him to write 20 more songs, look at them, throw them away and write 20 more. Then to look at those 20, throw them away, and to do this routine in five sequences. Whatever he wrote in a year he should look at them and trash them. Then one day he would actually get to the point where he feels like the stuff he was writing would be worth recording. Steinle followed the process.
Through the years the process has become more refined. But Steinle tells me there are two types of songwriters. There are those who sit down and have a rubric of what has worked in other songs and force themselves to write in that format, as if they are going to a 9-5 job. The other kinds of writers, similar to Steinle, are the type that will write more sporadically when songs come to them. “I’ll be sitting on the pot watching the sunset and I’ll save notes, little lines like one liners in my phone.” Sometimes those one liners and notes connect, and then Steinle will sit down and start writing. Or he'll write things that are completely irrelevant to his previous thoughts, which is called a subconscious writer. Everything Steinle writes comes from his subconscious. He doesn’t approach songwriting with specific themes or topics. They happen organically.
Pursuing a career in music started to come together when Steinle first got to The University of Texas at Austin for college. He wasn’t wholeheartedly into what he was doing. Growing up he had always looked up to his dad, a small town dentist with a private practice and the work in Saudi. Steinle pursued biology to model his career after his dad, but after failing a chemistry class he quickly realized that he didn’t want to be there in the first place. “It rocked me, it was horse shit,” he says.
So, like any other student who fails a chemistry class would do, he started writing. He started writing a lot. An even flow, he says. “A lot of writers say they get writers block, but I don’t because I don’t really force anything.” A trait he says he’s gotten by being the opposite of his dad when it comes to work. “Let things come and go as they are instead of beating your head against the wall until you breakthrough. You know, let the paint dry before you put on another layer. My dad’s thing is to put it all on there and just get it done, but it’s worked for him.”
Before songwriting Steinle always felt like a misfit. In Saudi when some of his peers were smoking hash and gaming, Steinle was at the skatepark in the 110 degree heat. He didn’t do it because it was cool, he liked doing it and learning something. But he needed a place to belong. That’s what songwriting has become for him. It’s his way of having a purpose.
“A lot of people think alike, I think it’s more of a UT thing,” he starts, “There’s this Roger Miller song, also one of my favorite songwriters, called, ‘Where Have all of the Average People Gone,’ and the first line is, ‘the people in the city call me country because of how I walk and talk and smile, but I don’t mind them laughing in the city because the country folks all say I'm citified.’ That’s exactly where I am. I’m at this point in limbo where you got all your old school, good ol’ boys down in south Texas, they even weren’t my big friends but they’ll talk shit about you. ‘Oh you ain't country,’ you know. And then you got people in the city like, ‘holy shit look at this conservative honkey,’ it’s this weird place.”
But Steinle says he swallowed his pride, grew up, and accepted things for what they are. And it shows.”People might not be listening all of the time, but they’re looking. It might be a glance, it might be a stare, whatever.” There’s been times where people Steinle thought weren’t listening at all have come to him after shows to tell him good job and appreciate that he didn’t have a “shit attitude.” As I sit with Steinle, he stares off into his yard and takes another sip of beer and we sit quietly for a moment. He’s gathering his thoughts. He starts talking again. At least for now, Steinle has someone listening to him.
Follow James Steinle on Twitter @James_FromTexas and Instagram @JamesFromTexas92
Listen to him on Soundcloud and visit his website here