With an arm’s length list of credits stretching from the likes of Kesha, Caitlin Rose and Deer Tick, to Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town, pedal steel savant Spencer Cullum is one of Nashville’s most in-demand session cats. That’s in addition to making up half of acclaimed, primarily instrumental space-country duo Steelism. Clearly he’s had little trouble fitting in since moving from his native London to Music City by way of Detroit eight years ago, even if it’s mostly meant blending into the background. “I guess I’ve always hidden behind [the instrument],” he deadpans. “I’m always the guy who looks like he’s studying for a test in the background.”
Now, with a debut solo album, Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection, paying homage to the ’60s and ‘70s psych-pop, folk and proto prog heroes of his homeland, this Nashville sideman’s stepping out from the shadows into the spotlight. The album is being released on November 12 by Nashville’s yk Records. Along with a supporting cast of fellow Music City stage and studio aces like guitarist Sean Thompson and multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds, as well as singing and writing partners like Rose, Andrew Combs, Erin Rae, Annie Williams and James “Skyway Man” Wallace — he’s bringing a bit of Britain to Tennessee.
While that might sound a little off-brand for a picker who’s made his bones on arena and stadium stages with Miranda Lambert, Cullum notes that his introduction to pedal steel was actually through the instrument’s prominent appearance on classic English rock albums released in the 60s and 70s. In fact, the man who taught him to play the instrument was the master steel player on those very recordings. Multi-genre stylist and session man B.J. Cole, recorded with a staggering range of diverse artists including Elton John, Sting and John Cale, to Beck and Björk.
Paradoxically Cullum handling lead vocals duties here left little room for showing off his pedal steel mastery on Coin Collection. “I have a very thick East London accent and really wanted to sing how I talked and not put on a persona,” he says.
Produced by Jeremy Ferguson and recorded at the Grammy-winning Nashville indie-rock producer’s Battle Tapes Recording studio, the album boasts a wide-open, bell-clear sound fit for a deftly shimmering set of songs with non-narrative lyrics culled from the mystic corners of the subliminal mind. The lyrics come from “my own experience,” Cullum explains, “but [I] also wanted to not be emotionally specific, almost in a dreamlike, subconscious state. Like spidergram.”
Today Glide is excited to premiere “Tombre,” a song that finds this talented steel player exploring new musical territory. With a distinctive 60s psych-pop and early prog rock sound, the song brings to mind early Pink Floyd and Kinks songs, with a quiet, mellow sound that takes you on an unexpected journey. What is perhaps most unexpected though is that Cullum is front and center not as a pedal steel player but as a singer and band leader, tapping into his love of English folk. Musically, we can hear the influences of Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny in his work, while this track in particular references his love of psych-prog groundbreakers the Soft Machine. As someone known for his instrumental work on the pedal steel guitar, this new song and album marks a fresh direction for Cullum.
Photo credit: Angelina Castillo