Steve Moakler has penned songs for some of country music’s biggest stars, but now the singer-songwriter is focusing on his own music — and bringing his personal life to the forefront in his latest album, Steel Town.
“This is the first record where I’ve really talked a lot about where I’m from and my roots,” the Pittsburgh native tells PEOPLE exclusively of his fourth studio album, out Friday. “It’s the first time I’ve incorporated a lot of chapter one material from my life and the folks who raised me.”
He continues: “The record is about that balance of knowing who you are and where you’re from and what you have to bring to the moment that nobody else does.”
Moakler named the album after his hometown’s nickname, which stems from its steelmaking roots — even if the city has reinvented itself over the last few years.
“I’m convinced that there’s still some steel in the people there,” Moakler says. “Whether it’s true or not, it’s something that I got a lot of strength from.”
Many of the songs on the album were inspired by Moakler’s childhood experiences. For instance, “Siddle’s Saloon” (a track he penned with friend Barry Dean, who also wrote “Suitcase“) is about the bar his grandfather built in his basement.
“It’s a really rocking song that’s deeply personal for me,” he says. “It falls in the category of songs that I really didn’t have the insight to write when I first got to Nashville.”
At the heart of the album is the track “Wheels,” another deeply personal tune — and Moakler’s favorite of the project.
“There’s more depth to it than just love songs and hometown songs,” he says. “Not everyone knows what it’s like to grow up in ‘Steel Town,’ not everyone’s in love, not everyone has experienced heartbreak, but ‘Wheels’ is universal because we’re all growing up, and we can’t change that.”
Moakler left his hometown when he was a “cocky” 18 year old, and moved to Nashville to pursue music.
“I was so concerned with where I was headed, I was doing nothing but dreaming and looking down the road,” he says. “I was kicking up dust behind me, and I think now a lot of that dust has settled.”
Success didn’t come as quickly as Moakler expected, but that only makes the release of this album and the success he has found with “Suitcase” that much sweeter.
An “incredibly surreal” moment in his career includes hearing “Suitcase” on the radio for the first time.
“I was writing a song when I got a text from somebody, ‘Hey, your song is on the radio right now.’ I ran out to the car with the guys I was writing with and we fired it up right there in the parking lot and just threw the windows down and celebrated,” he says. “It was so cool.”
Plus, the hit song — that features his real-life wife, Gracie, in the music video — has made him “busier” than ever.
“I’ve clocked a lot more miles on the highway and in the sky, but it’s a thrill to have music that you know is connecting with people,” he says. “The fact that I’m talking to PEOPLE — that is very representative of the change.”
So how does he decide when to keep a song for himself or give it to another artist?
“It doesn’t really become a problem until somebody wants [the song],” he explains. “There was one song that Kenny Chesney was interested in called ‘Summer Without Her’ that I was like, ‘Oh man, I really love this one.’ ”
Ultimately, Chesney ended up not choosing the song, and Moakler says he’s happy it found a place on Steel Town.
“There are a lot of songs that I loved,” he says of his songs that were picked up by other artists. “But when I’m writing them I’m like, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’ I always enjoy writing in any way.”
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Though the album is now out, Moakler won’t be slowing down anytime soon. He’s busy crafting the set list for his first-ever headlining tour, The Highway Finds — and manages to squeeze in a little time for celebrating.
“We’re going to have a little celebration with everybody who worked on the record with a lot of our friends here in town,” he says. “We’re definitely going to raise up a few drinks. It’s been a long time coming!”
Steel Town is out now, and click here for Moakler’s The Highway Finds tour dates.