Erstwhile rock frontman, playwright and filmmaker, Eric Steele has returned to music with The Great Plains, a country album set in the broad core of America in a post-pandemic world. It’s a continuation of Steele’s captivation with the terra firma at the so-called heart of America, finding a new voice, literally and figuratively, to explore old themes.
A lot of Steele’s work over the years has surprised me. I was surprised when this person with a broadcaster’s deep baritone took the stage with Dallas rock band Red Monroe and sang-shouted with a shockingly high yawp. I was surprised when this same person took a sharp turn from rock music toward writing plays and films. And, I’ll admit, I was surprised at how good those were. But Eric Steele returning to music with a geographically consumed folk country album? The avowed Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell super fan? No, I was not surprised Eric Steele made The Great Plains.
This album is an obvious place for Steele to go after his hybrid stage/film series the Midwest Trilogy from several years ago. Set in the innocuous trifecta of Dubuque, Omaha and Topeka, the three works pull at the strings of the country’s placid interior and watch it come undone. The Midwest Trilogy was impressive in its balance of love and ruthlessness toward its characters. With The Great Plains, Steele pivots slightly westward to America’s vast in-between that stretches from border to border, this time plying meaning out of the region with melody instead of camera.
The Great Plains is an exercise in scarcity. There is little beyond guitar, voice, mandolin and fiddle, the first two played by Steele and the latter two by Dale Morris Jr. That is the entire personnel. This spare approach evokes the still nights of nomads, possessing only what they’re able to carry. This kind of Dust Bowl scene gets frequently critiqued when musicians create its sound. What right, critics wonder, do non-hoboes have to make hoboe-esque songs? But it begs other questions. What right did the Californian Fogerty have to sing about the Bayou? What right did Arizonan Marty Robbins have to ride into El Paso? I’m not sure anyone gives a shit when these things are done well.
There is a lot on this album that Steele and his partner do well. As unsurprised as I was with the theme or the style of music, I am astonished at what Steele can do with this voice. With Red Monroe, he evolved from high register rock singer to brash, punk shouting. On The Great Plains, Eric’s voice is much smoother, richer, with a subtle country lilt, but not overdone. The fiddle provides almost all the flash. With little else to distract, it often steals the show. But the traditional bluegrass elements of mandolin and fiddle are held in tension with the overall moodiness of the album. It has a kind of morning fog about it, something Steele has carried into all his music, that kind of wet cold that sneaks through all your layers. There’s not a hook to be found on The Great Plains, but you will find the opening refrain cycling over and over in your head for the few days after you first hear it.
Stele has promoted The Great Plains as a post-pandemic concept record. Certainly its stillness gives off a certain post-apocalyptic vibe. Why I find that theme difficult to grasp is that we are, right now, MID-pandemic, not post. Interestingly enough, it is the wild cacophony that Steele used to produce with his old band that is more suited to the current moment.
What I find so interesting about The Great Plains is how it taps into a lurking temptation I think many have had over the past year and a half: escapism. The opening line is “face away” and whether you are on a bus, a diesel truck, fleeing a burning house or getting the hell out of Jacksonville, almost every song on The Great Plains is about leaving. Whether this was Steele’s intent or not, far from ruminating on the pandemic, the album awakened my overwhelming desire to flee the present, twin nightmare of lunacy and tragedy.
My one true criticism of The Great Plains is its length. At seven tracks and just under 25 minutes, it’s hardly representative of the Great Plains themselves. It’s laudable whenever an artist has the awareness to edit him or herself down, but I think Steele has been too severe. I would like to have seen this material stretched a bit the way the Plains themselves yawn past the Dakotas and on into Canada. There is much to say about the pandemic and the region. And I suspect Steele has the ability to say it.
I am not sure I would have given The Great Plains the level of attention and scrutiny I did if it were made by someone else. But it deserves the attention because of the work Steele has already done. Those are the rules of art and they are completely fair. Eric Steele has demonstrated himself as a trustworthy artist. Having tackled the Midwest and here the Great Plains, I’d love to see him give still more regions the same treatment in any medium. But I think he should finish examining this region first.