Twangin’ from Thameside
The Arlenes may have English roots, but they’re as country as an F-150 with a big dog riding shotgun
Now, conventional wisdom might tell you that an Englishman cannot sing or play American country music.
Of course, the Beatles did a pretty credible job of covering Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally,” and scores of players from across the big pond can twang with America’s best—guitarist Albert Lee, for instance.
Add Steve Pulford, alias Big Steve, to that list.
Pulford, a lanky 40-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter from London, moved to Sacramento at the beginning of 2004 with his American-born wife, Stephanie Arlene. They met when she was managing the country section of Tower Records’ Piccadilly Circus store in London, and she’d gone out to see him sing. “I decided to chase her from that moment,” Pulford said. Originally, their partnership was musical and quite platonic. “We started singing together pretty much straightaway,” he added. “We didn’t actually go out, as such, for about three years. Took a while, but it was a bit more meaningful when we actually did, perhaps.” The couple, now married for six years, has one child and another on the way.
The band that resulted from their union, the Arlenes, has released two CDs in England—the six-song EP The Arlenes (Lido, 1999) and the full-length Stuck on Love (Loose/Vinyl Junkie, 2002). The band features Pulford and Arlene on vocals, with Pulford on rhythm guitar, backed by English musicians. Both those CDs contain an original song, “Springboard,” which got a lot of airplay in England on BBC Radio 1.
A third CD, Going to California, will be released next month by Loose Music in England; Pulford said he’s looking for an American label to pick it up over here. It was recorded in Austin, Texas, with the Gourds—one of the finest, if underrated, Americana bands backing them. “I’ve known them for years,” Pulford said. “I used to do a lot of stuff in London, promotion-wise; I used to put shows on, and we used to put them up.”
Pulford and Arlene now have a locally based band to work with; Pulford had taken a job working the door at Old Ironsides when he moved to town, with an objective. “I figured I’d be able to hang out and meet loads of musicians,” he explained, “and that’s what I did.” And his new players may be familiar—former Oleander guitarist Ric Ivanisevich plays guitar; Ed Slack (yes, it’s his birth name, not some nom-de-Dobbs) plays bass; and Matt McCord, best known as the drummer for Tinfed, keeps time.
The band’s secret weapon is Arlene, whose warm alto voice has the kind of lived-in quality that can get inside the words of a song, breathe life into them and make them believable. She is, in a word, exquisite. And Pulford’s not a bad singer himself; his gentle baritone has a fine natural twang with well-rounded nuances. And their voices lie down together nicely on the harmony parts. For a good example of what they do, on the song “Love Her Like a Demon,” on the new album, they both sing—first apart and then in harmony.
Pulford’s songs are “country,” but they’re a lot closer to a cosmopolitan purveyor of well-written slices of life, like Rodney Crowell, than they are to, say, Hank Williams on the classic end or Toby Keith on the contemporary side. He’s fully formed as a writer, and he’s already penning songs that sound like classics, like Going to California’s upbeat, fiddle-driven “Travelling Song,” or the ballad “Don’t Turn Away a Loving Touch,” which follows it.
The new album’s one cover song is the old Charlie Rich song “What’s My Name?” “I’ve always been a big Charlie Rich fan,” Pulford said. “I’m not a huge fan of, like, straight country music. But I like old-style country music; I love the Nashville sound—quite overproduced stuff, I suppose. And, moving to America, I’ve learned that if you say you’re a country singer, or songwriter, that turns a lot of people off.” He laughed and then added, “I’m tending to say I’m more of like a pop songwriter who likes the country sound.”