STEVE MOAKLER IS “a soulful mix of Seger and Springsteen with a Music City flair”
“This album is inspired by the road,” says Steve Moakler, “Not just the road that I’m on, but the road that we’re all on, trying to close the distance between where we are and where we want to be. I hope these songs give people courage and strength to keep going and to not turn around.”
For his fifth album, Born Ready, Moakler drew on time he spent on the road following the success of his last record, Steel Town. Ironically, the record inspired by his hometown in Western Pennsylvania led to the longest and hardest touring year of his career.
Moakler—who has written songs for such artists as Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen, Ben Rector, Joe Nichols and Reba McIntire—had started work on the follow-up to Steel Town when he was asked to write a highway anthem for the Pennsylvania-based Mack Trucks. He came up with “Born Ready,” but quickly realized that there was something special about the song.
“I was still looking for the theme, the heart, the strand that would tie the album together, and that song revealed it to me,” he says. “Halfway through writing the first verse, I could tell there was a well of inspiration there. There’s this thrill and excitement of chasing a dream, getting a job done, but also the weariness and ache of not being where you want to be and missing the people you love.
“I’ve been doing this for over ten years, yet I never really sang about it,” he continues. “It took having a heavy dose of the road to realize how much it’s a part of me.”
With this central vision in place, Moakler and producer Luke Laird began to build an album that sustained and extended the concept. From “Born Ready,” he began to determine which songs felt right together and which really belonged on the album. He points to “Hard Not to Love It” (which was written before Steel Town, but didn’t seem to fit on that project) and “Slow Down” as obvious choices—“those were just spot on the narrative,” he says. He worked on “One More Troubadour” off and on, by himself, for a full year. “Thematically, those four songs were the pillars for the rest,” he says.
At the same time, Moakler knew that there was more to the story than just the hard lessons of the road. Beyond the exhaustion and loneliness, he also searched for the promise and optimism of new challenges and opportunities. “I didn’t want every song to be about the highway,” he says. “Some are totally on point, but some are more musical, more like road companions for people—whether that’s dealing with heartbreak or feeling nostalgic.”
Songs were inspired by unexpected moments along the way, whether an encounter Moakler had with a troubled woman on the streets of New York or a blizzard in Denver. “Chesney” looks back to Moakler’s high school girlfriend, who shared an admiration for a certain country star, and “The Last Word,” inspired by Easter Sunday, wraps up Born Ready with a meditation that he can only describe as a gospel song.
Eleven years after relocating to Nashville from the Pittsburgh home he memorably captured on Steel Town, Moakler has toured alongside such acts as Old Dominion, Willie Nelson, Dan + Shay and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. (And he has, of course, already set out on the Born Ready Tour, powered by Mack Trucks, which started March 22 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and makes 28 stops before wrapping on May 19 in Detroit.) Performing on so many different stages has had a tangible impact on his songwriting.
“Having played more shows for bigger crowds, every time I sit down to write, I can imagine where a song might live more clearly than I could before,” he says. “Festivals, arenas—I’m hoping to have songs worthy of that moment. What kind of song can hold that many people who don’t know you? So I think on this album, the choruses are a little more anthemic and singable.”
Yet from his non-stop songwriting sessions, and working on Born Ready with such chart-topping writers as Jessi Alexander, Gordie Sampson, and Jon Randall, Moakler also knows that—even with a theme shoring up the focus of an album—there’s no formula for a great song. “Every day, I try to come in as a songwriter and make something special happen,” he says. “If it’s in my heart, it will come out. Sometimes I might try to choose a specific target, however I feel like I’ve had the most success, the best mindset, when we just write the best idea in the room. Sometimes the other writer’s mojo is on fire, and I’d rather serve their good idea than be mad that I don’t have one!”
Born Ready is an album that’s born of experience, of the literal mileage of the road, but also the maturity of a hard-fought, steadily growing career. For Steve Moakler, the ultimate lesson is a simple one. “Great songs do most of the work for you,” he says. “The more icons and legends I watch in all genres, the more I believe that it just comes down to great songs that feel authentic. Every night, there’s that magical moment when an artist is pouring their heart out during a song and you can see everyone in the crowd saying ‘That’s my story, too.’”