Without resorting to artifice or clichés, Steff Mahan has a gift for writing songs that sneak up on you and, before you know it, get you all teary-eyed. And the stories behind them might just do the same.
"The first two records were really about a broken heart, and then with the third record, I went through a really bad way of life for a while," says Mahan, who'd wondered if she'd even make a third record. "I went through a bad breakup — I was with the same person for 17 years — and I also lost my best friend. So the third record, I think, is about a broken life, and trying to find my way back to who I am and who I was raised to be by my mama and daddy."
Which, based on Mahan's songs and stories, is a highly sensitive and intelligent person. Raised in small-town Illinois and now living in Nashville, her songs have been recorded by major country artists like Patty Loveless and Tim McGraw, but have yet to make it to their finished albums.
Still, it's all just a matter of time. And in the meantime, the singer-songwriter's albums prove that she has no problem getting her own songs across beautifully.
The way we were
One of Mahan's most powerful song is "I Tend to Lose Things," which was written in honor of an elderly neighbor who became like family to her after she moved to one of the poorest parts of Nashville. Louise turned out to be a 30-year recluse whose late husband had marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
Intent on celebrating Louise's birthday, Mahan was surprised to learn that her friend didn't know when it was.
"I'm like, 'How can you not know when your birthday is?' And she said, 'Baby girl, when I was born, they just didn't care about another little black baby being born.' And she just said it so matter of fact, she wasn't mad or sad or angry, that's just how it was. And I was so angry for her."
During one of her daily visits, Louise handed Mahan the sunglasses her husband had worn during that historic march. "I folded them up and I gave them back. I said, 'Louise, thank you, but I cannot take these.' And she got teary-eyed, she looked at me and she said, 'Baby girl' — she was always calling me baby girl — 'you're the only family I got. You have to have these, you got to wear them proud.' And so I wore them about three years, and I lost them about three weeks after I lost Louise."
Mahan has written songs about her parents that are no less moving. In "Carnival Ride," from her new album, Never a Long Way Home, she recalls how, one summer when she was 5, she'd wanted to see the carnival that was coming to town. Her father was on strike at the time, which meant they couldn't afford to go. Instead, she remembers him putting her on top of his shoulders and running through the back yard and it ended up being one of the best summers ever.
Mahan says she wrote the song after her parents moved out of the house that she'd grown up in and all their friends had gathered for a farewell party.
"After everyone left, it was about nine o'clock and I stood in my backyard and just started crying, because I was never going to see this house again, this was not my home anymore after all those years of living there."
Big boobs, big hair
When Mahan's not out on the road performing, she often does songwriting sessions with other artists back home in Nashville: "I just love writing with writers that are actually writers," she says. "But nowadays, all the artists are wanting to write. It was so weird, because this one girl came in — I won't mention any names — but she was picking up a writing session with me. And the girl did not bring a piece of paper, a pencil, a pen, a notebook, a guitar, an idea — she brought nothing. Except her big boobs and that was it. She couldn't even really sing."
But don't all artists who can't sing go to Los Angeles?
"Oh trust me," says Mahan, "you can succeed in Nashville fine if you don't sing. We have the same equipment they have in L.A., just bigger boobs and bigger hair."
"The bigger the hair, the closer to God," she says. "We do live in the Bible Belt."
Mahan's other extracurricular activities include an Etsy site where she sells her photographs of heart-shaped rocks. Once you start noticing them, she says, you find them all over. She figures she has about a thousand of them now, and has more recently begun finding rocks shaped like four leaf clovers.
So which does Mahan trust more, the hearts or the clovers?
"Neither," she says with a laugh. "I mean, the clovers haven't done me much good. But the truth is, I do have a good life. I'm not rich, I'm not famous, but I do what I love. And that's more than most people can say."