While they've just finished their first major tour opening for Sheryl Crow, O.A.R. and Train, two years ago Salt Lake City, Utah, hard rock band Silvercrush were perched at the edge of an even bigger career milestone. Having slogged away on the local circuit for two years, the group was scheduled to play an important music conference in Las Vegas where the audience would include representatives from various record labels. But the day before the event, Silvercrush frontman Steele Crosswhite's dad and manager Bill Crosswhite died from an aortic aneurysm and his son was too crushed to care much about the show.
Even so, Silvercrush decided to take the stage firmly convinced Bill would have wanted them to. "He had worked so hard and he really believed strongly in me from the time I was five performing in front of talent shows," Crosswhite said. "We played the show in tribute. I never begin the show talking, but I began by telling everyone that we were not even really playing for them. It was something I was doing for my family and for me and for our band and my dad."
Though the band played its normal set of Pearl Jam-style rhythms and Live-ish hooks, the performance was even more sincere and passionate than usual. Crosswhite, guitarist Carl Broemel, bassist Dave Christensen, keyboardist Mike Flynn and drummer Jim Stauffer confronted their grief with their emotional songcraft, and everyone in the crowd could feel their pain.
The sudden death of a parent can fill anyone with sadness and confusion, but Steele was especially devastated. Not only had his dad loved him, raised him and managed him, he gave Crosswhite the strength and ability to pursue a music career after many others had discouraged him.
Crosswhite was born with a physical disability. His left hand is about half the size of his right, making playing guitar a real challenge. On several occasions between the ages of eight and 10 he wanted to take lessons, but guitar teachers said they were unable to teach him. So when Crosswhite turned 14, his dad, who had played professionally in the '60s, took it upon himself to teach his son.
Since Crosswhite's left hand wasn't large enough to play guitar chords, Bill taught him to play left-handed by tracing standard chord positions on onion paper, and then inverting them to reveal how they would be played by a left-handed guitarist. With a little practice, Crosswhite mastered the chords then learned to hold the pick in a way that allowed him to strum normally. And instead of teaching him to pick the guitar with all the fingers of his left hand, Crosswhite's dad instructed him to use two fingers together with the pick.
"At the end of the day, my disability doesn't affect me much," Crosswhite said. "I've never known anything different. It's not like I was born with a full-sized hand and then had my hand chopped off. This is the one that God gave me to use. I wanted to play guitar, and dammit I was going to do it."
Despite the adjustments he had to make, he picked up the instrument with relative ease, and soon started jamming with various local musicians. Not content just to play covers, he wrote his own songs and in 1997 formed Silvercrush. The band clicked right away and was eager to take its music out of the practice room and onto the stage.
"We'd be thinking, 'Man, we're the greatest rock and roll band in the whole world,' " Crosswhite said. "Of course, we'd only be playing to a couple of friends and a couple of couches. And my dad would come downstairs and say, 'You know what? You're not even ready to play a show yet. And he kept us down there a whole year before we performed live. He had a real business knack. He had an understanding of what it meant to be a young kid trying to make it in the music business, and how we could eventually succeed."
Not long after the Las Vegas showcase, Silvercrush were signed to Redline Records. The band's debut album, Stand, produced by John Mellencamp guitarist and knob-twister Mike Wanchic, came out in June.
"All the lyrics on the record deal with what a person feels from day to day," Crosswhite said. "There's desperation, happiness, loneliness and anger. A lot of it had to do with me dealing with the loss of my dad and the changes in my life."
Two years after his father's death, Crosswhite is extremely busy and pleased by his band's success. But no matter where he plays or what he writes, he can't help but think about the guy who got him there.
"Every day has really been a tribute to him," he said. "Being in New York City recently made me remember sitting down and talking to him and going, 'One day Dad, we're gonna be in New York with the band.' Or, 'One day we're going to be on a tour bus on our way to a show.' Well, all those things are happening now, so it's very exciting because I'm accomplishing something he and I had set together as one goal. But at the same time it's kind of bittersweet."