These days, it’s more and more unusual to see a so-called “Country music band” that features a pedal steel guitar onstage. Or, if you do see a steel guitar in a mainstream Nashville Pop group, it is usually found way in the back where the instrument doesn’t get to cut the crust off the songs like in the old days when Hank Williams recorded here in the Queen City in the 1940s.
Now, in Cincinnati, believe it or not, there is band carrying a steel guitarist called Jeremy Pinnell and the 55s. With Pinnell on guitar and lead vocals, Chris Alley on drums, Ben Franks on bass and Cameron Cochran on the aforementioned pedal steel guitar, the Northern Kentucky band has been nominated for Cincinnati Entertainment Awards this year in the Country and New Artist of the Year categories.
Pinnell’s path to playing Country music was twisted and unlikely, yet it was ultimately a matter of keeping it real. By the end of his teen years, he had jumped headlong into the hardcore Punk music scene, living that Rock & Roll lifestyle with all of its highs and lows.
Then, one day, Pinnell heard an album that turned his head around.
“I don’t know — you get older and a whole new world opens up,” Pinnell says about his switch to Country music. “What happened was that I started listening to the Palace Brothers (one of the many rootsy projects from the ’90s by Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy). From then on, (Oldham) inspired me to do a total 180. It’s been a long time, probably 15 years since I bought that first Palace Brothers album.
“I related to the songs about the hard times and the broken hearts that everybody goes through, that whole odyssey of Country music, and it basically comes back to honesty. I’ve said this before, but I think the honesty and integrity that both (old-school Punk and Country) genres share, it’s the same channel.
We like that raw, songwriting Country music, like Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings and George Jones.”
Music has been in Pinnell’s life from an early age, starting when he began to sing in church. But took a while before he started exploring the wide array of music found in the world around him.
“When I was real young, there was that Kenny Rogers song ‘The Gambler,’ which sounded good when you were a kid,” Pinnell says of his early exposure to “Country.” “Then, of course, The Dukes of Hazzard TV show that Waylon’s song always started. We grew up in church and we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music until we got older, so we had to watch TV to listen to music.”
Pinnell is also nominated for a third CEA in the Singer/Songwriter category. While the 55s have a repertoire of about 60 songs that they can throw down at any time, including many old-school Country chestnuts, at the heart of this group is the soulful original material that springs from the mind and heart of Pinnell.
“I think experience is the greatest (songwriting) tool,” says Pinnell, who’s performed with acts like The Light Wires and The Great Depression over the past decade or so. “I can’t write a song about being a coal miner because I never mined coal, but I can write a song about the things I’ve been through. Because when people listen to you, they can hear the honesty and relate to it.
“It’s great to hear people relate to it, man, to see people smile and see people happy. I like writing songs that mean something to somebody else and seeing people’s lives touched by it. To see people happy, that is a true gift. I believe that all things come to the surface in one form or another and sometimes a song just happens to come out.”
With such compelling songwriting fueling this trad Country band with an edge, the possibility of playing music for a wider audience is always there. But it’s not something Pinnell thinks about often.
“I’m just grateful to be here. That’s all I can say,” he says. “I’m just happy to be playing here in town. I’m happy playing good Country music with good players, man. I don’t know, I just keep doing this thing and good things keep happening. I’m not trying to get too far into the future. There ain’t no use in that. I really enjoy sitting down and playing with these boys. I like writing songs and playing songs and it so happens that these guys like doing the same thing.”
Asked if his old Punk scene buddies are surprised to see him playing Country music, Pinnell says, “I’m sure.”
“But they see I’m being honest with what I am doing,” he adds, “and how can you deny somebody being honest?”