Steel Betty brings old time tunes to life for a new age of listeners in their debut EP “New Age, Old Time.”
Story by Hayli Rudolph
Photos courtesy of Steel Betty
An old fashioned silver and gold Edwina microphone finds itself center stage as an upright bass, mandolin and guitar collective circle the stand.
Steel Betty resurrects the seasoned bluegrass genre for a younger generation of listeners. With an audience sprinkled with gray hair and others with fresh rosy cheeks, all alike can’t help but lose themselves in the wave of the trio’s delicate twang and soul.
Refusing to be bound to just one genre, the Austin-based band created one of their own. Their risk landed them a management deal, securing their childhood dreams for the next two years and exceeding their aspirations.
Descending from New York, Ohio and right here in Austin, the musicians gravitated together in an act of serendipity. Or perhaps they were just at right place, at the right time.
Madeleine Froncek, 26, Micah Motenko, 27, and David McDonald, 29, all grew up surrounded by music. It was only a matter of time that the similar-interested strangers found each other in the “Music Capital of the World,” of all places.
Montenko was a school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio before making the move to Austin. The job gave him security, health benefits and a peer community. Naturally, what does the mandolin virtuoso do? He gives up his comfy life to move to the land of dreamers and pursue his true passion. “What really sold it was that I had a really good full time job and I still wanted to piss it away and do music,” Montenko says. “Here we are.”
Unlike Monteko’s strong intuition of his future, Froncek and McDonald, who were introduced by a mutual friend, took caution as they peered into the eyes of the seductive lyrical beast. “I’m just taking it day-by-day to play music,” Froncek says. “Just seeing where it leads and as long as we’re still having fun.”
Fun describes their bluegrass howls. Bodies jolt awake to the 20-somethings’ infectious energy. The old time genre reflects precisely what the band represents: good times.
Steel Betty brings music enthusiasts a New Age remix of late-dated tunes. Rather than box their act as a solely bluegrass ensemble, they consider themselves an old timey band that happens to play American root music.
Here in lies their self acclaimed genre: New Age, Old Time. “We think of bluegrass as a piece of what we do,” McDonald says. “I don’t think any of us would characterize Steel Betty as a bluegrass band unless it’s for total convenience sake. We do play bluegrass and I think we do that because it’s really fun and it feels good and we like how it sounds.”
During the band’s inauguration, they dreamt in black and white. Their old-school Edwina microphone not only serves as an aesthetic staple set piece, but a reason to bring the band closer: figuratively and literally. “It is significant to our shows because it keeps us physically close together, which I think keeps us all more tuned in to what the others are doing while we play and makes it easier to interact,” McDonald says.
Their acoustic sound curates a set of original tracks and covers of folksy tunes, guaranteed to make even the stiffest of people sneak in a toe tap or two.
“We have to be having fun and we have to like it,” McDonald says while mulling over the songs for the setlist. Their September debut EP, “New Age Old Time,” mirrors this vibrant core. The four tracked collection coalesces the collective’s voices and instrumental gifts. “Alone,” for example, offers a religious experience. Froncek’s angelic voice shines bright and soars high, as McDonald proves his right to be called a guitarist. Cool, calm and collected Monteko takes a mandolin solo mid-song. Froncek’s fingers jog the vibrating chords of the upright bass, not even a single quiver, sweat or glisten reveals itself. A melancholy yet sweet calm looms throughout the track until the very last note. Amen.
This authentic, lively spirit is precisely what got them noticed.
In April, the band signed a two-year contract with Austin’s Baylin Artist Management. Lured in by the band’s siren-like effervescent charm, President Marc Baylin knew they were something special. “They represent a mix of music happening in Austin: Americana, Bluegrass, Tex-Mex and Old Time Country,” Baylin says. “They are so sincere in how they present the music.”
The management organization works to help artist book gigs around the country, which is music to the ears of McDonald, the dual musician and manager of the band. “It’s nice to feel stability and know that we’ll be doing that for a couple of years at least,” McDonald says with a deep breath. “It’s like you can kind of let go of some worry sort of.”
The $75 Goal
As the band formed together, they had a single goal. “At Steel Betty’s inception it was never the initial goal to play one show a week and make $75 each,” McDonald says with a laugh. “That wasn’t the initial goal and then there were bigger goals after that. That was the one goal.”
Flash forward to today, the band has surpassed their debut target. They’ve toured the western states, released an EP and are currently working on their first full-length album. The $75 goal feels like a thing of the past.
Now their goals have changed, or rather multiplied. They want to perform tighter, connect with the audience deeper, and above all else, make it work. “This band has to work for everyone in the band,” McDonald says. “ I really don’t care a lot about the specifics as long as everything works. I’m opened to playing 15 gigs a month or four gigs a month, as long as we can find a way to make whatever gigs those are work for everyone.”
As the mandolin, bass and the guitar approach the shining microphone, they transform into jubilant musicians. Young and nostalgic, they begin to render old time jams for a new age of listeners.