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One fall afternoon, songwriter Jeffrey Steele drove through the Colorado mountains observing the landscape. He began noting telltale signs of rural life - a tractor in a field ... an obscure town's name emblazoned across a water tower ... a population sign on the outskirts of a small community.
"I was just looking at the scenery," recalls Jeffrey. "I wasn't thinking of writing about it. I was just making mental notes as I looked around - like I usually do."
But the drive took place in October 2001 - a month after 9/11 - and the tragedy of that day still reverberated in the minds of all Americans.
"Everybody was trying to write a tribute song," says Jeffrey. "Obviously, Alan Jackson wrote one of the best ever. I didn't want to write a song about that, but I wanted to try and capture the emotions of pride and how people pulled together in times of great adversity."
When Jeffrey reached Durango, Colo., he hooked up with a friend and fellow songwriter, Reed Nielsen. Guitars came out, and the two started writing about real-life images similar to the ones Jeffrey saw while driving through the countryside.
"Reed was talking about his grandparents getting laid off from the pepper mill," says Jeffrey. "Even though the plant closed down, the whistle still blew every day at noon. Nobody had a job, and they would all just sit at the diner."
Before long, a tune about the pleasures of small-town life and the pride that hometowns evoke in all of us began to emerge. "We were writing about a small town," says Jeffrey, "but in my mind it was also about New York City. That was the underlying image."
As the song came together, an off-the- cuff moment ended up becoming a trademark of the tune. "I got to the chorus and, just for a joke, starting going, Nah na nah nah nah," he says with a laugh. "Reed liked the way it sounded, so we ended up putting it on the song. When it made it on the record, I was like, 'Wow, this is crazy!' "
Now, when Jeffrey talks to up-and-coming songwriters, he tells them to remember the power of the wordless, hummable phrase.
When Montgomery Gentry heard the song, they immediately let Jeffrey and Reed know that they wanted to cut it. The duo made "My Town" the title cut of their third album, and they also put Jeffrey's songs "Speed" and "Hell Yeah" on the same CD.
"My Town" was a hit - at once, topping the charts and establishing itself as a country anthem. It became one of the 50 most played country songs of 2003, according to Billboard magazine.
"The song took on a whole new life," says Jeffrey. "It became this hometown-pride kind of thing. It was just amazing."
-- Alanna Horner