With a guitar-playing father, other relatives who played music, and several musical neighbors, R. L. “Robert” Steelman, Jr., feels he was destined to be a bluegrass musician. “I grew up with it,” he says. He plays bluegrass mandolin, bass, and guitar, and he is very active in the bluegrass and traditional music scene in Yadkin County.
With help from his father, Robert started learning guitar and later picked up the bass and mandolin. “Several of my neighbors played, and I eventually played in a band with some of them,” Robert says. Some of those neighbors include Phillip Willard, Fred Parker, Buford Jester, Bud Patterson, Eldon Moxley, and Randy Willard. Robert also played with neighbor Leake Caudle, who at one time played with J. E. and Wade Mainer. Two other regional musicians were important musical companions for Robert. “Carl Joyner, an excellent bluegrass and country fiddler, and Ralph Pennington, fiddler and mandolin player, were very influential to me,” he says.
Over the years, Robert has played with most of the bluegrass and country musicians in the Yadkin County area. The Steelman family property is the site of a regular jam session that attracts many area musicians. “For many years, my father and I have enjoyed hosting a weekly jam session in the Lone Hickory community, just southwest of Yadkinville,” he says. Robert has also been an integral part of the Yadkin Valley Bluegrass Convention, with which he has been involved since its inception in 1985. He is also a contributing writer for Bluegrass Music Profiles magazine.
Robert has played with many bands over the years, including Fall Creek Bluegrass, Bill Van Hoy & the Grass Valley Boys, and the Boyd Brothers. He has performed at festivals and conventions around the region, and he has performed at area churches as a duet with his wife Beth, and as a bass player for Deep Creek Quartet. He currently plays in a band called The Bell Branch Boys with Wiley Stanford (guitar), Dwain Hunt (banjo), and Hoke Matthews (fiddle).
Robert Steelman is available for occasional performances and frequently serves as a judge for fiddling contests. He hosts a weekly jam session open to the public, and he is a contact person for information about the Yadkin Valley Bluegrass Convention.