Blairsville native brings Nashville group to hometown for Knotweed Festival concert
Saturday's inaugural Knotweed Festival in downtown Blairsville also will mark a first for musician Stephanie “Steevie” Steeves.
It will be the first time the 2003 Blairsville High School graduate has performed before a home crowd with her current country-rock group, The Devious Angels. Steeves and bandmate Jon Decious will help to close the festival with an acoustic set beginning at 8 p.m. at the bandstand at West Market and Liberty streets.
“I'm so excited that I get to play for my hometown,” Steeves said in a phone interview from her home in Nashville earlier this week. “I haven't seen my family for a long time, and there's nothing better than being able to bring your gift to your family and friends.
“My community was so good to me when I was younger. Entertaining them now, that means the world to me.”
Steeves has always lived for music and counts Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton high among the female artists who have inspired her. But, when she was growing up, she gravitated toward show tunes and classical pieces as she participated in her school's chorus and theatrical programs.
She adapted her singing to other styles when she completed stints as a vocalist with two area bands — Broken Arrow, known for its country-rock covers, and Steph and the House Band.
Steeves' confidence and experience as a singer grew even more when she landed a gig entertaining predominantly female crowds cruising Pittsburgh's three rivers on the Gateway Clipper Fleet.
Soul music and blues were the main ingredients she had to work with as she sold audiences on songs made famous by Aretha Franklin or Smokey Robinson.
“You really had to step up your game,” Steeves said. “I had to work to win the crowd over, but it always ended in my favor. That opened a new musical door for me.”
Other doors were soon to open for Steeves, in 2006, when her grandmother, Catherine Fisher of Blairsville, took her to Nashville to take part in a singing competition.
“It was so much a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Steeves said.
Though she didn't win that event, Steeves finished among the top 10 and she recalled that she took second place in a karaoke contest when she and her grandmother later visited a honky-tonk bar on their extended stay in Nashville.
“That was actually more fun” than the formal singing contest, Steeves said.
She came away from that life-changing trip having fallen in love with Nashville. “It's a city, but it's like a small town,” she explained.
By the following year, Steeves had moved to the “Music City” to see where her own music would take her.
She also understood that it wasn't an easy road to choose, as many other talented people are there pursing the same opportunities. She realized, “Everyone could sing in Nashville.” But, “You're somewhere you feel you can fit in and can get better at your craft. It makes you work a lot harder to attain your goals and maintain life as an artist.”
The Devious Angels had its start in 2010 when Steeves and Decious met as participants in the Horse and Writer Invitational, a songwriting retreat in the mountains of Wyoming that is led by Nashville artist and songwriter Skip Ewing.
They'd come from different musical directions. (Decious had played bass with the Nashville power pop band The Pink Spiders.) But the two immediately clicked — first as songwriting collaborators and then as performers.
“When I met Jon out there, I thought it was great,” Steeves said. “We had mutual friends and lived a street apart from each other. It was in the stars for us. It was already supposed to be.
“The two of us writing together seemed to be perfect. Everybody that we performed for, they wanted more. Instead of just writing the songs, we became an artist. That's just been kind of taking off.”
As for their choice of band name, Steeves noted the first part combines portions of the pair's surnames. While for some the word “devious” carries a negative connotation, Steeves takes a different view based on the word's actual meaning: deviating from a straight line.
“We're kind of taking an unbeaten path toward something,” she said. “It means we're just doing it in the most natural way we know how.”
Regarding the second part of the name, she added, “To me, angels are messengers, and we are messengers of music.”
Steeves and Decious have recorded just a few of the many songs they've written on two EPs — a self-titled debut and their new five-song release, “Bad Tattoo,” which they'll have available at their Blairsville concert.
“We have a really unique sound. I think that's what people really gravitate toward,” Steeves said.
Rather than striving for sonic perfection, she said the pair emphasize storytelling, believability and making an emotional connection with the listener.
While The Devious Angels has been labeled a duo, Steeves said she and Decious don't think of themselves strictly as such, which is reflected in their organic writing process.
She said their combination of male and female vocals provides them flexibility, with the choice of what vocals to use in a given instance driven by “what's best for the song.”
While both can play the instrument, Steeves noted, “Jon is the one who holds the guitar” when they perform.
Often when they write a song, she said, “I start singing to whatever he's playing. The ideas start flowing, and we go from there.... We both get a vision in our head what that song should start saying.”
“A lot of our songs come from personal experience,” Steeves added. That includes a track on the new EP, “Tie-Dye Sky,” that was inspired by a friend who passed away last year.
“We met him through mutual friends,” she said. “This guy had the best spirit, and he was definitely a hippie in his own right.
“Jon thought of the title, and it painted a really beautiful picture. It's very special for everybody who knew him. Music is therapy.”
The Devious Angels has enough tracks recorded for a full-length album when all the pieces fall together.
“We're in the middle of figuring out what the next step is,” Steeves said. “With all the success that we've had so far, I think the next step will be getting that publishing deal or that label deal — just something that will catapult our music in the direction it needs to go.”
Though they're still holding down non-musical jobs, Steeves as a waitress and Decious as a farm hand, there's reason for optimism on the part of the pair, whose booking agent also handles top country star Jason Aldean.
Steeves noted they've already had a “bucket list” experience. On July 20, they were among acts appearing at the Master Musicians Festival in Kentucky, along with headliner Willie Nelson. “When we found out he was headlining, we figured, ‘We are so there,'” she said.
They've also repeatedly appeared at Nashville's legendary Bluebird Cafe club that spotlights songwriters performing their own songs and has been featured on the ABC TV show “Nashville.”
“We've been lucky enough to sit in with some hit writers who have had some really great success,” Steeves said. “We get a really good response there.”
Last fall, The Devious Angels earned a spot performing at the Country Music Hall of Fame after winning a battle of the bands competition. The band was included in a list of “Who New to Watch in 2013,” published in the Country Music Association's CMA Close-Up magazine.
The group also has been nominated for “Best Country Duo or Group” in the 2013 Nashville Independent Music Awards. Fans can vote online for the group at www.nimadigital.com/vote.
Amid all those exciting developments, Steeves said she's no less thrilled by the chance to appear before a hometown crowd Saturday in Blairsville.
“I think the highlight of the year for me will be to perform for my family and friends,” she said. “You get to do all these crazy good things,” like playing on the same bill with Nelson. “But you want to see your mom in the crowd.
“We're so busy, I haven't been home in a year.”
She's hoping to fit in five days in Blairsville, spending as much of it as possible with her large family including parents Clifford and Sylvia Steeves, sister Celeste Steeves and grandparents Dennis and Catherine Fisher.
“My grandmother is my biggest fan,” Steevie Steeves said, noting,”My family has always been supportive.”
For more information, visit www.thedeviousangels.com or check out the group's Facebook page.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.