Josh Steely had the opportunity of his lifetime, a chance to go on the road as a rock musician, as lead guitarist for the band Daughtry, and he actually thought about not taking the gig.
Steely, now 40, was 36 at the time and had been playing guitar all his life. Growing up in Carlsbad, California, just outside San Diego, he had worked on his chops, listening to and playing punk rock, the Beatles, and other styles of music. The son of two musicians, Steely had spent his entire life waiting for the moment when Chris Daughtry, the former American Idol finalist, told Steely that he had made the cut and was being offered the guitar gig.
But Steely really thought about turning it down. He had spent the past few years working as an electrician on commercial and industrial jobs and had just moved from apprentice to journeyman status. He was finally starting to make some money and he, his wife, and three kids were starting to have some financial stability in their lives.
And he remembered his own father, Dave Doran, who had spent years on the road as a guitarist himself, for Bob Seger and Jimmy Buffett, back in the 1970s and ’80s, because that was the only way he could pay the bills, but who had missed seeing his children grow up.
So what did Steely do? He agonized. He thought about it. He talked it over with his wife and kids.
And then he went on the road with Daughtry, and he’s still on the road four years later. “I took the gig, and I never went back to work.” Daughtry performs on Sunday, June 20, at Sun National Bank Arena, with Lifehouse and Cavo. Some of Daughtry’s most popular songs include “Life After You,” “No Surprise,” and “It’s Not Over.” Lifehouse is known for its songs “Broken,” “Everything,” and “You and Me.”
“I had been on the road during the formative years of my life, and even later, my dad had to go on the road without us,” says Steely in a phone interview. “I didn’t want that for my life. I wanted to be there to raise my kids the old-fashioned way, being at home and everything. But it comes down to what your calling is in life. So when this opportunity came up to work for Daughtry, it’s something I ultimately had to accept.”
His wife told Steely to go for it, putting it this way: “This is something you’ve been (complaining) about all these years.” “It was hard to know that you had this thing in you, this dream, and you can’t even do it,” Steely says. “She said, ‘Get up there, give it a try. You don’t want to live your life regretting that you didn’t.’”
As a child, music always surrounded Steely. He and his parents had spent most of Steely’s formative years on the road, living in Nashville, New Jersey, and other places. “They traveled a circuit of clubs in the ’70s, just playing all over the country. It was a strange time. I thought this was normal, until I was about 10 and we settled down back in San Diego. It was a hard way to raise kids, sleeping in motel rooms, or in a car. We didn’t travel around on big tour buses like I do now.”
It was in the early 1980s, when disco became popular and rock and folk took a back seat, that the couple and their three kids (Steely, a brother, and a sister) went back to San Diego. “My dad had to take off again and my mom got jobs, settled down, and took care of us.”
In addition to working in a real estate office during the day, Steely’s mom, K.T. Steely, tended bar and sang and played piano and guitar and worked the San Diego clubs with her husband as a popular duet.
It was during a summer camp in sixth grade that Steely first got turned on to music, he says. “A buddy of mine brought his guitar, and he taught me some Beatles songs, and we went up there and did a talent show kind of thing. We sang ‘Yesterday,’ and the kids were really into it. They cheered and clapped for us. I was, like, ‘Wow.’ It’s a great feeling to entertain people and they enjoy it. After that, I couldn’t put the guitar down.”
Steely’s parents introduced him to classic rock, and he later found his own way with punk rock. “I loved that period. The punk rock movement in the ’80s was all about trying to undo what had gone on in the ’70s. For us kids, getting into that aggressive punk rock music was almost like making a political statement.”
After his mom and dad split in Steely’s late teens, his stepfather, Willie Kellogg, also a musician, turned Steely on to world music, especially styles from the Indian subcontinent. “He was an old drummer guy, who had played with guys like John Lee Hooker and old bluesmen like that,” says Steely. “He was really heavy into Indian music, music from the subcontinent, not just Ravi Shankar but all these different musics. All of these things. He would meditate too. From about the time I was 17, I was into all kinds of mellow music, lots of Indian and Eastern music.”
Steely became a father at 17 and needed to support his son, so he began playing music for a living and working in construction. “That’s when the fatherly instincts kicked in. I started working with framing, and stucco, and drywall, anything I could do to make a living, collecting skills so that later on, when my son was 14 or 15, I started a handyman business and became a contractor. I always thought that I’d still make my music, and be the best dad I could be.”
While Steely gigged around San Diego, in bands such as Sandjacket, Drive Like Jehu, and Pitchfork during the night, he also worked as an electrician during the day. It was tough putting together all of these different lifestyles. “Sometimes, my hands hurt so badly after working all day that I couldn’t really practice or play guitar,” he says.
On one of those days came a call from Stevie Salas, a San Diegan who was putting together bands for former American Idol finalists who were about to tour. He called up Steely and asked him to audition for the guitar job in the Daughtry band. Steely had actually seen Daughtry on American Idol, and he made an impression. “I thought that was the kind of singer you would want in your band,” Steely says.
“He talked me into it, and I came up (to Los Angeles), and stayed for a week.” Salas was going to audition about 70 guitarists, and Steely had an advantage because he was playing Daughtry’s parts while the other guitarist played. “(Daughtry) was recording, so I got to stay there and play and sing Chris’ parts while the other guitarists were auditioning,” says Steely. “It really helped me to understand what the job entailed. He needed a team player and not as much someone like Slash, who would get up there and just play solos. He needed a player who could multitask as much as possible, you know, play some guitar, some keyboard, even some kazoo if I had to.
“Now that we’ve been touring for so many years and done so many big shows, now you could consider me to be the Slash of the band. I play a lot of solos, get a chance to be some type of a hero.”
First impressions, while not bad, were somewhat deceiving, says Steely. “I was wearing work clothes and flip-flops. (Daughtry) thought I was some surfer bum kid — a 37-year-old surfer kid — who just washed up off the beach,” he says. Not that the singer was all that wrong. “Oh, yeah, of course. Growing up in Carlsbad, it’s laid back, nobody’s frontin’ anything. It was a small beach community, and I spent a lot of time at the beach after school and during the summer.”
When Steely can, he takes his wife and kids on the road with him. The band is fairly flexible; all of the musicians in Daughtry are fathers, and they don’t want to get too far from home.
“I like to think I’m a good stand up guy, and a good husband and father, and I’m able to avoid the drugs and all of the other bulls*** that surrounds this music business. So this ended up being the perfect situation.”
Daughtry with Lifehouse and Cavo, Sun National Bank Center, Hamilton Avenue at Route 129, Trenton. Sunday, June 20, 7:30 p.m. $29.50 to $39.50. 800-298-4200 and www.comcasttix.com.