By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
If Hayley Prosser and Sara Zebley had any doubts about their decision to move to Nashville and become full-time musicians, the long ride home in their new, giant 15-passenger van erased all doubts.
“We bought a van today,” Prosser excitedly tells the Current during an April 12 interview. “We kept looking at each other, kind of in disbelief over what we had just done. But we needed it if we were going to tour with a full band. It was a big step, but you train your brain to be OK with it.”
But taking giant leaps is nothing new for these two women born-and-raised in separate Western Pennsylvania river towns. Prosser grew up in Jefferson Hills in the Monongahela Valley; Zebley was from further south in Fayette County’s Dawson, Pa., which sits on the Youghiogheny River. In 2014, the pair became the Steel Blossoms, packed up their belongings and moved to Nashville to make a go of it as professional musicians.
And while they’ve spent the past five years in Nashville, their hearts still belong to Western Pa. That’s why at 7 p.m. on April 26, the Americana duo will roll that brand-new van into Pittsburgh for a record release show at the Hard Rock Cafe in Station Square. That’s the day their new, self-titled album drops from their new label, Billy Jam Records.
“We’ve always felt so supported at home,” Prosser says. “In the beginning, we would come home a lot to play and we probably got a little oversaturated in Pittsburgh. But we haven’t played there since October.”
Playing the local music scene is how Prosser and Zebley first met in 2008 when bands they were in both played at a music festival in Jefferson Hills. Prosser was 15 and Zebley was 18. Although younger, Prosser, who sings most of the lead vocals, was the more daring of the two, even by Zebley’s admission. The two played at a lot of the same events and began playing together. In 2011, Zebley’s band, Girlz in Black Hats needed a singer. Prosser was in college at the time, but still, she tried out and got the job.
The duo complimented one another. Prosser had always been a singer, Zebley not so much.
“I was never much of a singer, but I played a lot of instruments,” said the multi-instrumentalist. “I remember I asked Santa for three or four straight years for a violin. One year, he came through. I can’t even pinpoint why I wanted to play it. But it was so strange, I touched it for the first time and knew exactly where to put my fingers.”
One weekend, Zebley, who was in her third year of teaching elementary music, visited Prosser, who just began her student teaching, at Shippensburg University.
“We both knew this wasn’t the end of playing music,” Prosser said. “During my student teaching I decided that I couldn’t do this every day for the rest of my life. I called Sara and told her I wanted to move.”
It wasn’t that Zebley didn’t want to move, but she needed a little more time. “She called me up and said she wanted me to quit my job and move with her to Nashville,” Zebley says. “I thought she was nuts for so long, but eventually after a little convincing, the time was right and we moved.
“Everyone needs that rebel friend to push them into doing something they never thought they’d do.”
They went into the move with a plan. They worked hard and saved up six months of rent and utilities so they could give music an honest try. moved in August 2014. Prosser initially took work at a daycare center but, “I worked there for three days. This wasn’t the reason I moved here, to sit in traffic and cuddle babies all day,” she said.
Adds Zebley, “The hardest thing is for people to go blindly into a situation. I think you can go deep into your backup plan. But once you make this decision, you have to trust yourself and whatever happens, happens.”
Not too long after the move, they got a gig playing “seven days a week” at Tootsies in Nashville. They began working regular gigs elsewhere and in November 2016, they put out their first full-length record, Country Enough.
That sentiment, sort of sums up the duo’s sound. While Nashville is full of bands that have spent decades ruining the true country sound, Steel Blossoms embrace American roots and folk music. They aren’t Nashville’s typical rock-driven, radio-country bands. In a city that is more responsible for ruining Country and Western music than anything else, they have managed to stay true to the sound they’ve developed.
“We don’t really fit into one specific genre. We really developed our sound more solidly once we moved here,” Prosser says. “It was our job, we had more time to write together and play together.”
Says Zebley: “We worried that someone would try to change us and we wanted to continue to play music that mattered to us. In the end, talent is talent. We may not be the band everyone wants to hear at the bar at 2 a.m. when it’s time to go home, but we are true to our selves and we’ve been able to map our own way.”
Talent is not something this duo lacks. Steel Blossoms, is a lyrically-driven record packed with memorable songs. While they are really good musicians and vocalists, the pair’s genius really shines in their song writing. On an album of really good songs, songs like “Heroine,” “County Line,” “You’re the Reason I Drink,” “Killed a Man” and “Revenge” really stand out.
On “Revenge,” for example, Prosser’s vocals are strong, self-assured but still vulnerable. Zebley’s violin and a haunting melodic guitar build this song about domestic violence into a tense, heart-pounding, goosebump-raising anthem that rose out of the “Me-Too” movement.
There’s not a bad song on the record and the secret ingredient to each are the harmonies that Prosser and Zebley produce. Despite not being related by blood, their voices mesh together in a way that you typically don’t hear outside of sibling duos like the Everly Brothers or Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
“I tell Sara all the time, ‘thanks for moving with me,’” Prosser says. “If I had come alone, I probably would have been eaten alive or become an alcoholic.”
Zebley laughs and then add, “When Hayley told me she was coming no matter what, I really, truly commend that. For a long time it felt like we were going nowhere and having each other made social situations much easier. We are each other’s wingman. We are such close friends, It’s not an act. We truly love and care about each other. I’m so glad we made this leap together.”