James Steinle’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get brand of country music surely makes his home of South Texas proud, with its simple, straightforward approach to spinning tales of dusty joys and weathered sorrows. On his second album, What I Came Here For, a series of uncomplicated narratives spill forth upon honky-tonk canvases to speak of love lost and expectations dashed.
“Black & White Blues” opens up Steinle’s sophomore effort with a mid-tempo barroom number telling the story of a protagonist on the run from a cop who clocked him doing “120 in a 45.” While desperation is a common feeling on What I Came Here For, here at least Steinle asks the man upstairs for help: “Take me to your big casino / Take me there oh lord / ’Cuz another day in this cruel world / This man cannot afford.”
In many ways, Steinle’s songs live up to the most common country clichés, but it’s only because he’s so clearly pledged allegiance to the genre and its conventions. A cliché doesn’t have to be tired, and Steinle keeps things awake and alive even if the ground is well-tread. The clever turn of “Low & Slow,” the ache of the title track, the relational analogies on “Without You” — these are all well-worn grooves in a country catalog. But like a favorite pair of jeans or boots, they slip on comfortably for good reason.
That said, Steinle is at his best and most interesting on “Blue Collar Martyr,” a brooding curveball of a tune with muddy guitars and a front-porch stomp that takes its sweet time. It’s a stomach punch of a tune, arresting with lines like, “Call me a martyr / Call me the kin of Jesus / I do this workin’ just to keep on my lights / Flick to enlighten / Or tear down for desecration / The leaves are turning on a jaded old mind.”
Two albums in, Steinle has already learned well which paths to walk for a solid country release. However, there’s more here than meets the eye, inspired flashes of an artist with not only more to say but more ways to say it. It will be interesting to see where Steinle goes from here.