As a rule, Texas country music comes in two flavors. There’s the thoughtful, introspective, singer/songwriter material being perfected by artists like Jason Eady and Jamie Lin Wilson, full of substance and heart and soaked in fiddle and steel. Then there’s the stuff with less lyrical substance, but no less heart and even more fiddle, from artists like Aaron Watson and Randall King. It’s not too often that a Texas country artist succeeds at both, but this is precisely what we get from James Steinle on his new album, What I Came Here For.
The lyrical standout of this album is undoubtedly the title track, as the narrator muses on what his purpose might be in life, or if he even has one. This song does a nice job of conveying a universal sentiment that we’ve certainly all felt at one time while also painting specific pictures of this mans life instead of broad sentiments that wouldn’t have the same impact.
The songwriting also stands out on “In the Garden,” as this song takes the clever approach of being told from a dead man’s point of view. This man is waiting impatiently for his soul to be set free and lamenting the fact that the world has forgotten him and others, never paying heed, as he notes, to "what’s lying down beneath.” This is such a well-crafted song, and it’s also helped by Steinle’s worn and weathered vocal tones, as are most of these tracks. The ability to write and choose songs to best showcase one’s particular vocal delivery is an underappreciated art, and James Steinle does this excellently well.
To balance out the deep songwriting, there’s some lighter, and frankly, just plain fun, material here. “Back out on the Road” isn’t going to blow anyone away lyrically, but it’s just so infectious, with the rollicking, carefree piano and joyful harmonies. And if the bluesy vibes of “Low & Slow” don’t put a smile on your face, you’ve become completely immune to good music.
That bluesy vibe is what separates Steinle from his Texas country and Red Dirt contemporaries; where Texas generally goes for a hybrid of country and rock, Steinle opts for blending country and blues in a way that really makes this record stand out in the scene. Blues and country have always been intertwined, but these days, we mostly see country blending with pop or rock, and the influence of the blues on country music has largely been lost or ignored. Songs like the aforementioned “Low & Slow” and “Black & White Blues” intrigue me and make me wish more artists would experiment with this type of sound. “Blue Collar Martyr,” a song about a factory worker losing hope in the wake of being replaced by machines, uses the bluesy licks, together with Steinle’s weather-beaten tones to create one of the coolest moments here musically; if you only listen to one track from the album, please make it this one.
Any fan of traditional country and the blues should certainly check this out. The style is such a great blend of the two disciplines. If you’re looking for something hard-hitting lyrically, try the title track. If you’re looking for something to brighten up your day, crank up “Low and Slow.” If you’re just looking for good music, check out the whole great record.
What I Came Here For is available today everywhere.