An Interview with Jearlyn Steele
With her palpable passion for music & song, Jearlyn Steele has become a favorite of A Prairie Home Companion fans. Jearlyn Steele first sang with her siblings as The Steele Children in churches, concert halls, and on radio and TV. After Jearlyn left Indiana and moved to Minnesota, the rest of the Steele siblings followed one by one. Once they were all in Minnesota, they started singing together again as The Steeles. Now music is the family business.
Watch 'Baby I Love You'
Jearlyn has appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in many forms: as a solo guest artist, as part of The Steeles, and with her brother Billy or her sister Jevetta. She possesses the rare ability to tackle songs from any genre, from jazz and R&B to gospel and blues Her unique versatility is demonstrated on this record, Jearlyn Steele Sings the Songs from A Prairie Home Companion, which is exactly what it sounds like!
Jearlyn also hosts Steele Talkin', a Sunday-night radio show that originates on WCCO in Minneapolis and is heard in some 30 states nationwide.
How did you get your start in music, and how long have you been performing?
I have been performing since I was knee-high to a duck. [laughs] I do remember singing with my siblings at the tender age of 5 when we opened for gospel greats Mahalia Jackson and the Blind Boys of Alabama in my hometown of Gary, Indiana.
Who are your biggest influences, and who are your favorite contemporary performers?
We were influenced by contemporary artists like Andre Crouch, The Walter Hawkins Singers and Richard Smallwood, but every now and then, in our very Christian home, I would steal away and listen to Simon and Garfunkel, the Jackson 5 and Earth, Wind and Fire. My favorite contemporary performers are many and varied. However, I will say that I so enjoy the music of Bonnie Raitt, India Arie and my siblings, The Steeles.
Watch 'Proud Mary'
Tell us about your new album.
I am very excited about the new CD simply called Jearlyn Steele Sings The Songs From A Prairie Home Companion. It features songs I've sung on the broadcast over the past 4 years. It was difficult to choose from the many R&B, country and gospel songs. However, it highlights some of my favorites like "Saved" by Leiber and Stoller, "Natural Woman" by Carol King, and a duet with my sister, Jevetta, called "Center Of My Joy", written by Richard Smallwood and William Gaither.
What is your favorite track on the new album and why?
I have two favorite tracks on the new CD. The first, "Who Am I?", which touches my heart every time I hear the lyrics. I took the liberty of changing a couple of lyrics to make it more personal. In the original version, the opening lyric in the chorus reads "I am Rosemary's granddaughter" but I changed it to my grandfather's name, Julius. The second is a popular country song. I mean how often do we get to hear a black woman try to sing country? I must say, I have learned that maybe I should never try to sing country but I sure love singing "Crazy".
You have appeared as a regular performer on the show for the past 10 years or so; with the sheer amount of material to choose from, how did you choose the songs on the album?
As a frequent guest I have had the pleasure of singing many genres of music from bluegrass to gospel, jazz to R&B, and classical to Caribbean. I reviewed which songs listeners had asked me to record or songs that received a big response and came up with a little something for everyone.
Watch 'Midway of Love'
Do you have any favorite recollections or stories? As Garrison has a penchant for rewriting famous songs, do you have any favorite songs he has written specially for you such as "You Know You're A Minnesotan " or "Midway of Love"?
Well, there are too many to name. I have such great respect for Garrison as a writer. For me, many of his lyrics have inspired an emotional response. Most noted is the song "The Day Is Short" from the A Prairie Home Companion movie soundtrack. When he first handed me the lyrics to review, I had an intrinsic reaction. I immediately thought of so many in the entertainment business that live and breathe the life he speaks of and do it at a great cost. I just couldn't wait to share those lyrics with my family, my community—my country!
Watch 'The Day is Short' from the A Prairie Home Companion film
Tell us about your experience on the A Prairie Home Companion movie: how was it to work with Robert Altman and the rest of the cast?
What an experience! It felt like a family immediately. I clearly remember my first encounter with Mr. Altman. His assistant had called and asked if I could stop by and meet the director. When I arrived at his office, one of the "stars" of the movie had arrived in town early and was expecting a welcome from the director. After taking the call, he slowly rose from his chair and with great sincerity and charm he placed his hand on my shoulder and issued an apology and said he looked forward to working with me. He also ensured his support for my gifts and encouraged me to just be me. So "me" is what you get.
You have also recorded and toured with Prince—can you tell us how that experience was?
My siblings and I sang and traveled with Prince for a couple of years. We were featured in some videos and documentaries, and I even recorded a duet with him entitled "Race", which moved up the charts in Europe. Many have asked what it is like working with one of our nation's superstars. Well, fortunate for me, I have now had the pleasure to work with more than one, thanks to A Prairie Home Companion.
Which brings me to another question: Since you have such a diverse musical background, do you have a favorite genre to sing?
I can't say that I have a favorite genre to sing, but I will say that there are several I am not good at and should never try them again! [laughs]
You also do your own weekly radio program; how can fans find out about it?
Thank you for asking. My talk show, Steele Talkin' With Jearlyn Steele, is on WCCO Radio 830AM [in the Twin Cities] and is heard every Sunday night from 7 to 11 p.m. I've been doing radio now for more than a decade and I really enjoy talking about everything I care about and many things I know nothing about. My hope is that listeners and I will learn together and, through sharing our beliefs and understanding, we can grow together as well. Please visit www.wccoradio.com and listen live on Sunday nights.
What about hobbies; what are your favorite things to do on and off the road?
I enjoy reading, sleeping—since I don't get to sleep much at home—writing songs when the inspiration hits—and it always seems to hit on the road—and getting to know others. I love striking up a conversation with people at the airport, in subways or back stage at the performance venues. I get a lot of show ideas from regular folks like me, who care about irregularities in our world.
If fans want to keep in touch with you, where can they go online for touring information?
Please visit www.thesteelesmusic.com.
Get A Prairie Home Companion releases featuring Jearlyn Steele:
A Prairie Home Companion Movie Soundtrack >>>
A Prairie Home Companion LIVE DVD >>>
A Prairie Home Companion's 30th Anniversary DVD >>>
The 40th Anniversary Collection >>>