Last winter, at the Herschel Sizemore tribute show in Roanoke, I was hanging out backstage, where some of the biggest names in bluegrass were getting ready to perform. Things were just getting started and a band I’d never heard of was on stage. There was no need to grab the notebook and get to work just yet
And then I heard the voice – big, edgy and filled with emotion, the way Bob Seger might sound if he did bluegrass instead of rock and roll. I followed the sound and had my first encounter with Republik Steele and it’s lead singer, Dave Adkins.
It’s been a wondrous ride for the eastern Kentucky band since then, signing with Rural Rhythm Records and Moonstruck Management and working up a debut release, produced by Steve Gulley. Along the way, the band was rebranded Dave Adkins and Republik Steele.
That first project, That’s Just the Way I Roll, is out now, and it’s a good one. From the very first words of the title track, it’s clear the label was smart to put Adkins’ name right up front. The band is talented, playing solid, straight-ahead bluegrass with authority. But let’s be honest, a lot of bands can do that.
But not a lot of singers can lay it on the line like Adkins can, song after song. I wrote recently that Adkins may have the biggest voice in bluegrass today, and I haven’t heard anything here to cause me to back down from that assertion. If his voice can hold up for the long haul, we’ll hear a lot more from him in bluegrass, and perhaps beyond.
The band and the singer are at their best on up-tempo songs, such as the title track (written by Terry Herd, Gulley and Tim Stafford) and Rio, one of three songs on the CD written by Adkins. These two songs are perfect showcases for Adkins’ powerful voice. In fact, one line from the title cut could almost describe his delivery: “on the corner of careless and out of control.” But just on the verge of breaking, Adkins pulls back back. If he were a NASCAR driver, he’s run close to wall but not hit it.
Rio is one of those songs that reminds us that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. Paradise sounds grand, but when you’re there without the one you love, it’s just another lonely place. Or, as Adkins writes and sings: “I’m stuck down here on this beach of dreams. Life sure ain’t what it seems.”
But for me, the song that really lifts this release into the realm of wonderful is a remake of the Dave Loggins soft-rock classic, Please Come to Boston. You can almost hear Adkins’ heart breaking when he sings, “She just said no.” It also helps to have top-shelf harmonies from Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley. This song is a show stopper when the band does it live and it’s even better here.
I do have a small suggestion for the next time around – and make no mistake, there will be plenty of next times. I’d like to hear Adkins dial the voice back on a song or two, perhaps focusing on the tender part of a tender ballad. He comes closest to tender here on Rose Colored Glasses, the John Conley-George Babeo classic, and on Heartstrings, which Adkins wrote as a Valentine to his wife.
Adkins’ voice is truly an instrument, but it doesn’t always have to be plugged in and cranked up to 11. It’s very good just as it is, but I think with a little control and practice, he can find a parking place among the very best bluegrass singers now on the circuit.
At one point on this rookie record, Adkins, Kenny O’Quinn (mandolin), Matthew Cruby (banjo), Danny Ray Stiltner (bass) and Wesley Wolfe (guitar) deliver a Brink Brinkman-Dale Pyatt song that sums up where Republik Steele is at musically, Chasin’ A Dream.
“”Where I’m bound, I don’t really know,” Adkins sings. “Another town and another show.”
I don’t have a crystal ball, but my ears tell me these guys will do more than chase the dream. They might actually get the chance to live it. “Another town and another show,” no doubt. But this is more than just another band.
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