Tattoos tell stories, and Hailey Steele has a few good ones. “I love you” is scrolled in a grandparent’s handwriting along her right wrist. There’s a heart behind her left ear that she concedes was her “drunk tattoo.” A buffalo head nickel is stamped on the inside of her left forearm, a mirror image of one given to her by a girl that was raised by Native Americans in her native South Dakota. And then there’s the feather on her foot.
Call it fate, or a message from God — call it luck or a coincidence if you want, but that’s stubbornly pragmatic. Steele admits she reflects heavily on the day she met Chief Dennis Alley before a show at a South Dakota casino. She was 10 or 11 years old, and her father noticed an unusual character seated just inside the backstage gate.
“We pulled up to the gate backstage and got out of the car and he was sitting there,” Steele remembers. “He’s like six-foot-five, in a full headdress, full Native American dress. And my dad is like, ‘You should go talk to that guy.'”
"I just reminded myself that I’m a creator, I’m an artist. I came to the realization that I’m always gonna do what I do and I don’t need to be validated by a publishing deal. I grew out of doubting myself after that."
She did, and within a few minutes a young Steele was on Loretta Lynn‘s lap. In the months and years that followed she’d hang out with Willie Nelson backstage, watch one of Waylon Jennings‘ final shows and become an adopted Native American granddaughter. While not Native American herself, the singer embraces the images and spirituality in her life and music. It’s a calming influence on a career that has been anything but calming thus far.
You may recognize Steele. Along with the Line partner Leland Grant, she auditioned for The Voice in 2011 and was chosen for Christina Aguilera‘s team in 2012. The Line lost in the Battle Rounds, and Steele was accused of being anything but gracious in defeat. Four years later, she partially regrets her body language, but doesn’t apologize for being passionate. The duo broke up, but Steele kept working in Nashville. Life continued to chug along.
The singer perseveres because no one in her family has the blueprint for success in country music. Steele comes from a family of teachers, athletes and Madison, S.D., outdoorsman. Her stride was always a little out of sync with that of her peers. She played shows all over the state. She graduated high school a semester early. A middle-aged Native American was one of her best friends.
At age 22 she found a mentor in hit songwriter Stephony Smith (“It’s Your Love,” “Johnny and June,” “Sin Wagon”) and later added Marcus Hummon to a tight-knit group of friends. She had a publishing deal, but then got dropped. In real-world speak, that means fired, and it’s always personal You’re either not writing good enough songs or not making your publisher enough money.
“When I first found out I was losing my first publishing deal, (Hummon) was the first person that I called and he was like, ‘Well, I’m actually getting dropped too … it happens to everybody.’”
“He took me to breakfast and told me that everything was gonna be alright,” she recalls.
Still, Steele needed to be honest about who she was — or at least thought she was — as a singer and songwriter. Pride took a vacation, and in some ways, it never returned. She’s better for it.
“I just reminded myself that I’m a creator, I’m an artist. I came to the realization that I’m always gonna do what I do and I don’t need to be validated by a publish in deal. I grew out of doubting myself after that,” she explains.
Success has struck light lightning in recent years — RaeLynn‘s “Boyfriend” was co-written by Steele — but like the majority of the #LetTheGirlsPlay artists, she’s still looking for something bigger. She’s a rising female star trying to fight off resentment and cloudy days with a guitar and pen. It’s working. Despite having a catalog of moody, reflective ballads, Steele is endlessly optimistic. The froth has been blown from her dream, but when she sees it in others, she still smiles and remembers.
“I see all these girls who move to town and they have these big ideas and they have a lot of potential, and I think it’s great,” Steele says. “That’s exactly how I was. I feel a duty a little bit to be protective of some of these younger girls I’m writing with just because I’ve been through a lot of situations in almost nine years of being here.”
On stage, Steele strums a white and gold Gretsch guitar that seems a bit large for her slight frame. It’s a gorgeous instrument — the kind you feel a little guilty staring at. Her turquoise rings have been removed, but silver earrings catch the stage lights as she sings “Where I Thought I’d Be,” a song from a new project she’s putting together one song at a time, with a late-2016 release date expected.
“Another year slipping through my fingers / Just like painted desert sand / Tell me did I miss my moment / Or is it somewhere around the bend,”she sings to begin a story that everyone with a dream knows too well. At the chorus, the words polish any stones left in her heart. Like water over rapids, they practically fall from her lips:
“I’m just not where I’d thought I’d be / Maybe all those visions were pipe dream wishes, and reaching for the stars was a little ambitious / Yeah that sun’s behind those clouds / Give it a little more time, the sky’s gonna smile and a light will come shinin’ on down / I’ve got faith that it will all work out / I’m just not where I thought I’d be right now.”
“Oh my goodness. I thought I was gonna be here and be the next Carrie or Miranda,” Steel admits. “You know, I thought I was gonna put my time in and be here for a couple of years and explode onto the scene.”
Jay Clementi helped pull the story out of her one year ago, on her birthday. Steele admits the words kind of fell out, and the melody reflects that. It’s a signature song — one indicative of where Hailey V2.0 is headed.
“Diamonds take patience and pressure and time,”she sings on “Diamonds,” a song from her self-titled EP.
Chief Alley was instrumental in installing this sense of spiritual ease in Steele. Her artist mind runs around, but her business sense no longer panics when things don’t go her way. The Chief died nine years ago, just after Steele moved to Nashville and the same year she became his adopted Native American granddaughter.
“He gifted me with an eagle feather when I turned 18, which is the highest Native American honor,” she says. “And I wrote a song about it called ‘The Eagle Feather.’ He passed away that year and never got to hear that song.”
At his funeral, she sang it for his loved ones. She was the only white person at the traditional Native ceremony, and after the event, she joined a group that got eagle feather tattoos together.
“He has a special place in my heart,” Steele admits.
- Billy Dukes, Taste of Country
Along with the release of "Wandering Heart" this year, a tour and EP can be expected in 2018.