He's Gone Country

Shunning ranch life for a music career, Tommy Shane Steiner has the meat and half the hump

The classic American movie Giant is an epic about a Texas cattle baron, Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) and his family. The film, released in 1956, also features the late James Dean and is riddled with clunky foreshadowing, not least of which is a scene in which Benedict's very young son refuses to ride a horse, opting instead to play with a toy medicine bag. Naturally, the child grows up to become a doctor.

A more modern version of Giant might have that same child playing with Barbie dolls and growing up to become Hedwig or Ru Paul, but for purposes of our story, let's imagine him grabbing a toy guitar and growing up to become new pop-country sensation Tommy Shane Steiner.

There are certainly several interesting similarities at work here and, as we will see, a few significant differences as well.

Reborn country: Steiner is one of the new guys — non-hat, video-friendly, pop-oriented country singers raised on music that is as far removed from Hank Williams as Moby is from Minnie Pearl.
Reborn country: Steiner is one of the new guys — non-hat, video-friendly, pop-oriented country singers raised on music that is as far removed from Hank Williams as Moby is from Minnie Pearl.
Ranch dressing up: Steiner's a country showman with neon in his genes.
Ranch dressing up: Steiner's a country showman with neon in his genes.

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Scheduled to perform with Jeff Java on Thursday, August 1. Showtime is 7 p.m. Call 480-949-0992.
Rockin' Horse, 7043 East McDowell in Scottsdale

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"Tell you the truth, one of the main reasons I started singing, there was a girl I was engaged to when I was around 18, and she and I broke up and I wanted to write a song about it, so I borrowed my dad's Martin guitar, learned a handful of chords, and started writing," says Steiner, now 28. The song, which is called "And Yet," is on Steiner's debut CD, Then Came the Night.

"She lives in California now, married, with a daughter, and when she heard me on the radio, she picked up the album. I hadn't seen her in five or six years, and she called me and said, out of the blue, You know, "And Yet" is my favorite song on the album.' And I said, Well, you ought to like it, 'cause it's about you.' The very next thing out of her mouth was, I knew it!'"

Steiner is one of the new guys — the post-Keith Urban non-hat video-friendly guys, who are in turn the post-Garth guys: male pop-oriented country singers raised on music that is as far removed from Hank Williams as Moby is removed from Minnie Pearl. But Steiner managed to do something many of them have not, and that's to have a hot hit single right out of the chute. "What If She's an Angel," a song about angels in everyday drag, has made a star of Steiner, a performer who, like the kid in Giant, is the youngest in a multigenerational family of rodeo stars, cattle breeders and, well, cowboys.

"I come from a rodeo and ranching family. My younger brother Sid is a professional steer wrestler, second in the world I believe right now. I'd probably be doing the same thing, I think, if my intelligence hadn't taken over," Steiner says. "Something inside me just said, You know what? I'm just not good around cattle.' You might say the reason I got away from the ranch was to get away from bullshit, and I guess you could also say that now I get to deal with another kind of bullshit."

The Steiner Ranch stretches across some 10,000 acres and sits some 30 to 40 miles outside of Austin. There they raise Brangus cattle for breeding, and can claim, at any given moment, roughly 1,700 to 2,000 head. "Brahman — they're the sacred ones in India — have these big humps on their back," says Steiner. "They're really good at dealing with heat and they hold their weight really well. Angus, of course, are really thick meaty cows, and when you put those two together, you basically have an Angus with a smaller hump. I guess you might say they have all the meat and half the hump.

"And because they're registered, we know their grandparents and great-grandparents — they're bred for genetics, and what we're selling is bulls, and they can go for as much as $80,000 apiece," he adds. "Eventually, of course, it comes down to meat."

And speaking of grandfathers, genetics and such, another interesting part of the Steiner story concerns his show-business legacy. "My great-grandfather, Buck Steiner, put on Wild West shows, and growing up I used to hear all these great stories about, like, Gene Autry, and when he was dating Annie Oakley when they were in the show together. . . . So eventually my grandfather took over the Wild West shows and moved them more towards rodeo events, but he'd have elaborate grand entries and pretty girls on horses holding flags, fireworks and live music," he continues. "He liked to do things bigger than life."

All of this may or may not explain why Steiner has a streak of neon in his genes; being the scion of showmen, bronc-stompers, riders, ropers, punchers and bull ticklers must have played a part as well.

"Thing is, everybody down there knows my father and grandfather and great-grandfather, and so for years I was just Bobby Steiner's son. I think that's what really made me want to go out and do something for myself."

Steiner took off for Los Angeles and took a shot at acting. He'll admit to a couple of minor moments in smallish movies. "One was a NBC Movie of the Week called She Fought Alone [1995], with Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Brian Austin Green. I played one of the bully boys in a high school gang and I only had one line, but I got to stand in the background a lot and look menacing. And then I had a line in Home Fries [as Shane Steiner], a Drew Barrymore movie. I pull up in a Jeep with my hair up in an Army hat and I looked like a 12-year-old Army Ranger. Of course, nobody wanted me back then, and now everybody thinks I ought to try acting. I think they just want to see how badly I act," he says, laughing.

Steiner's time in L.A. convinced him to skedaddle back to Austin and try something that was, if not completely different, maybe closer to home. He was eventually talked into getting up on stage with a local band he knew and find out whether he might be able to warble his way through a song or two. Turns out he could. At least once. The next night was a little less stellar. "It was maybe the most devastating thing that ever happened to me," he says. "Everything that could have gone wrong did: The mike was shorting out, my guitar fell off and hit the stage, everybody was laughing at me, and I almost quit. But my buddy told me, Hey, look, now you don't have anything to be afraid of 'cause you've done everything wrong you could. You afraid your voice'll crack? That already happened twice tonight.'"

Steiner stayed with that band, learned new songs, traveled around and sharpened his chops. "Pretty soon I was doing the whole show. And you learn things in a cover band by doing other people's material and learning how to do it right. It's a lot harder now, hearing songs no one has, and trying to decide if anybody will like 'em."

Enter "What If She's an Angel," a song that kicked around in demo limbo for four years before Steiner recorded it. When it was released on RCA, it peaked at number two.

Steiner's success has brought him a tremendous amount of attention, and it's inevitable he be asked what drew him to country music. "The first music I really remember listening to was the Bee Gees and Elton John. I loved Fleetwood Mac — and the first album I ever bought was Michael Jackson. But when I was growing up, there was all the Willie and Waylon music: Those albums practically showed up in your mailbox if you were in Austin at the time. And I listened to Clint Black, Keith Whitley, Randy Travis — mid-'80s, mostly."

And if he were to be pulled over by the country-music police whilst tooling around Austin in his brand new big black Hummer, what would we find playing on the multidisc changer? "I'll tell you, I listen to everything from Kid Rock to Eminem to Pink Floyd to Alien Ant Farm, Jimmy Eat World. I like Matchbox 20. I even like electronic dance stuff. I listen to everything."

How about alt-country?

"Alt-country I've never really been into." He pauses for a moment and adds, "I like the new Pink album, too!"

"The Hummer, by the way, was the first thing I bought when I got my contract," he adds. "I don't really so much drive around as I do drive over. The fun thing is to drive over things in the city. Don't print that, though, they'll arrest me. They'll start trying to match my paint with accidents."

Having covered most of the more important issues facing a bright and shiny new country pop star, including his video ("I can't stand the way it made my lips look all red. Something about the lighting made them look all swelled up. It got around that I was wearing lipstick. For the record, I used no lipstick. I didn't come off a cattle ranch to wear lipstick.") and the leather pants he wears in press photographs ("I'm sure at some point somebody's gonna say I look funny in my leather pants, and I'll have to run a tackle"), the single most pressing question remains: If Steiner happened upon a big old heifer in labor, say, in the back of a taxi cab in Austin, could he in fact deliver a calf?

"Well, the chances are pretty slim, I think, but oh yeah, I could do it. I've done it," he says. "That's just something you learn to do on a ranch, whether you want to or not. Some of those things might come in handy someday. You never know. But as far as I'm concerned, cows don't really smell all that good, and there's always something — they need shots and you gotta feed 'em at five in the morning — and it gets pretty hairy these days with the ultrasounds and artificial insemination. Bottom line, there's just something about ranch life that don't appeal to me."

Steiner thinks and adds, "Truth is, I really wanted to be able to sleep in a lot longer, and I wanted to get paid a lot more. Course, nowadays I probably sleep less and make less money. But at least I'm having fun."

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