A firefighter who first took up the banjo to decompress and pass the time between emergency calls, Randy Steele has clearly gone beyond and exceeded even his own expectations. Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he released his debut disc, Songs From the Suck in 2016, followed by an EP titled Moccasin Bender two years later. He quickly gained a stellar reputation in the process. Now after a five year absence he and his band High Cold Wind — consisting of Steele himself (banjo and vocals), Tyler Martelli (guitar), Faye Petrie (fiddle, vocals), John Boulware (mandolin), and Justin Hipp (upright bass) — return with a self-titled, five-song set that affirms the fact he’s still at the peak of his prowess.
That said, High Cold Wind is a mostly unassuming effort, its songs sharing happenstance and humility in equal measure. A Golden Smile consists of nothing more than Steele singing solo, accompanied only by his banjo, while even those tunes that feature the band as a whole are, for the most part, relatively restrained. Still, there are exceptions. The rollicking Eight Thirty Eighteen, allows for a notable uptick in the tempo, being that it comes across as a trucking song meant to be shared while hitting the highway. There’s a Part of Me follows suit, a song that brings to mind one of several Townes Van Zandt songs in its not-so-fond farewell to city life while choosing to enjoy the comforts of the country instead.
“Goodbye Nashville, please forget my name,” Steele declares while bidding his goodbye.
It’s a moving and memorable offering in other ways as well. Nashville Drinking Song might seem like an otherwise bitter break-up song were it not for the fact that it’s conveyed through an easy sway and sashay. “There’s a part of me I wish you knew,” Steele sings, giving voice to the heartache he’s suffering in the wake of a lover’s departure. On the other hand, It Happened is full of happy-go-lucky circumstance and circumspect, a tune that gives Steele cause to celebrate even though he finds the results aren’t always in his favor.
Clearly then, Steele remains a decidedly down-to-earth individual, a man for whom making music is still a source of joy and jubilation. Ultimately this High Cold Wind comes across like a calm and comforting breeze.