BUILT BY STEELE

With hits like "Chrome," "My Town" and "The Cowboy In Me," Jeffrey Steele might just be the most successful songwriter in Nashville today - but he still wants to have his own voice.

Jeffrey Steele commandeers a desk at his record label's Nashville office, settles into his chair and immediately grabs his Gibson Hound Dog Dobro. He casually fires off bluesy licks while collecting his thoughts.

"It's really hard for me to sit still without playing," he says apologetically. "I'm kind of a freak that way. I can't tell you how much I love to play."

Maybe that's why, despite having written one hit after another for stars like Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Trace Adkins over the past decade, Jeffrey is still passionate about singing his own songs.

"It's instant gratification, making a real connection with an audience," he says. "There's something that happens when the band's grooving, and the song is right, and the crowd's into it - it's kinda beyond words. It's like a drug, it's almost like you're levitating for a minute. You feel like you're getting them into your soul somehow. I know that sounds so cheesy, but that's really what happens."

The 43-year-old first got that feeling as a teen, playing in bands around his native Hollywood. He and some California friends formed Boy Howdy in 1990, finding success in Nashville with the hits "She'd Give Anything" and "They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore." Jeffrey pursued songwriting after the band broke up in 1996, but he couldn't stay away from the stage, launching a solo career with 2001's Somethin' in the Water. Now he's just released a new album, Outlaw.

"This record is a little more organic, and it rocks really hard," he reports. "I'm not afraid to say that I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Led Zeppelin, and I tried to make this record about where I've drawn all my music from over all the years."

One source of inspiration has been his wife and four children - three girls and a boy, ranging in age from early teens to early twenties. Jeffrey's two oldest kids are attending college in California - one wants to be a chef, the other a movie director. "I always joke and tell them they picked the only two careers that are harder and more unstable than the music business," he laughs. "But they're into it, so far be it from me to tell anybody not to chase their dreams."

Jeffrey's own dreams have pretty much all come true. While he would love to see his solo career take off, he'll be happy as long as he can keep singing and writing.

"You can't live and die by it," he says. "You've gotta be thankful for the moment, and try to hold that moment while it's there - then move on to the next one. I think it's real important to not take it too dang seriously all the time."

- Chris Neal

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