Moakler knows the feeling of rolling into something good in the writing room. He’s made a living as a Nashville hit-maker for the last decade with songs recorded by Dierks Bentley, Reba McEntire, Ashley Monroe, Jake Owen and Kellie Pickler.
“I can’t remember which one of us said, ’They start pushing you on four and you don’t have a say in where you’re going,'” Moakler tells CMT.com. “And all of a sudden, we knew exactly what the song was going to be. It was one of those light bulb moments you wish happened every day but it happens once in a while.
“We were going to use that image of wheels to tell the story of growing up in a very universal sense,” Moakler added. “And once we had that first line, if I remember correctly, it came together pretty quickly. Life gave us the road map for that one.”
The video for “Wheels” offers a literal interpretation of the song by following the story of a young boy who graduates from being pushed in a stroller, to riding a 10-speed bike, to getting the keys to his first car. Moakler jams on an acoustic guitar at a mechanic’s shop as the boy’s story unfolds.
“I had the title Steel Town sitting in my head for probably about a hear before I ever really tackled it,” Moakler said. “I knew that it could be a great song and a really important song to me, but I was really intimidated by the thought of writing it. When you’re writing about a certain place and those people, you want it to be perfect. There was a lot of pressure I felt there.”
Produced by Grammy-winning hit-maker and fellow Pennsylvanian Luke Laird, Steel Town is packed with 11 feel-good anthems that offer a sense of escapism and reflect the concept of time. Moakler wrote all of the songs except for “Suitcase,” which was written by Laird, Barry Dean and Thomas Rhett. His 2017 tour continues Wednesday (March 22) in Cleveland.
CMT.com: I have to ask: Ford or Chevy?
Moakler: Ha! A lot of my family, they have Fords. But I drive a Toyota Tacoma. I’m on neither side of the fence.
What specifically about where you came from inspired you with this record? Did you already have a collection of songs written about where you grew up?
This is my fourth record as an independent artist. I’ve had a very slow and steady career, and I’ve never been hot or trendy or a really popular artist. And I’d like to think that’s also the kind of town Pittsburgh is. It’s a place you grind and you work hard. You don’t necessarily do it for the glory. You do it because you love it. You do it to provide and to keep the dream alive. I guess I find a lot of strength in knowing that about Pittsburgh. That’s our history. It kind of keeps me going.
They don’t make a lot of steel in Pittsburgh anymore even though that’s what we’re known for. But I really do believe we made so much steel that I think it’s left over in the people. And in these times, it’s really helpful to believe that you have some of that steel in you.
In this line of work, no one retires really. This is a calling. In the last 10 years of releasing music independently, how have you manage your expectations of success?
The few things that I remind myself often of is you can’t control how people are going to respond to your work. But you can control how present you are in your work. You can really find a lot of joy and fulfillment in being present in your work and in the process of creating it. Sing it even if it’s for one person. I think now, having a lot of friends who have broken through and getting to see what that looks like a little bit, it kind of makes you realize that no one’s really satisfied with where they are unless they’re enjoying the ride.
How does loving where you come from inspire your work?
I’ve just had a brand new appreciation for it like never before. I guess that’s why I haven’t really written about my roots until my fourth album. When I go home and I get to be around my family, that’s really special. And I find it to be really grounding and inspiring. This has kind of been the time of my life where that appreciation is starting to surface. I do draw a lot of strength from that. I think we’re all strongest when we’re connected to our roots.