It’s been a while since we’ve heard from The Steeldrivers. Their most recent prior album, 2015’s The Muscle Shoals Recordings, was honored with a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Not long after, lead singer Gary Nichols took a medical leave, and then officially departed from the group, leaving the Steeldrivers on the hunt for someone to fill the gravelly-voiced shoes left behind by first Chris Stapleton and then Nichols. They found their match in Kentucky rock musician Kelvin Damrell, whose vocals fit perfectly with the band’s gritty, bluesy sensibilities. With Damrell now fully onboard, they’ve recently released a new album from Rounder Records, Bad for You.
The Steeldrivers’ most recent band bio refers to their sound as “dark, jagged-edged goth-grass,” and that’s as apt a description as any. Dating back to their beginnings with Stapleton over a decade ago, fans have clamored for their variety of bluegrass, tinged with rock, country, R&B, and more. Bad for You does not disappoint in that respect. The title track, and lead single, kicks things off in style, with mournful fiddle from Tammy Rogers, a swampy vibe, and howling (yet always fully controlled) vocals from Damrell. 12 O’Clock Blues also has a bit of a desperate, dangerous edge. Penned by Rogers, Kieran Kane, and Rayna Gellert, it dives into the thoughts of a man begging for relief from insomnia.
The Bartender, while still on the darker side, has a grassier vibe guided by Rogers’s fiddle and Richard Bailey’s banjo. It’s a cleverly-written number about a bartender’s responsibility in aiding and abetting customers in pain: “Some may call me a sinner but when it’s all said and done, I don’t pull the trigger, I just load the gun.” Lonely and Being Alone has the makings of a classic country number. It seems like it will be a straightforward “lonesome” song at first, but actually has a nice message about the “difference in lonely and being alone.” The song has one of my favorite lines on the album – “Lonely is only a bad place to be if you’re someone who can’t stand your own company.”
On the brighter side of things is I Choose You, a sweet, straightforward love song with cheery mandolin from Brent Truitt. Damrell’s voice still has its trademark grit, but here he’s lighter and more heartfelt, offering a nice change of pace. Cajun fiddle kicks off the enjoyable Glad I’m Gone. It’s a bouncy, lighthearted kiss-off to an ex who really isn’t missed all that much, that’s sure to be a fun live number. On the opposite side of lost love is When a Heart Breaks, a subdued look at the pain of ending a relationship.
One song that’s been highlighted on the album is Falling Man, written about the famous photo from September 11, 2001 of a World Trade Center victim. It’s an aching, heart-rending song that touches on the fact that even though that photo came to be a symbol for the attacks, the man pictured is still “somebody’s son, somebody’s dad, somebody’s love.” It’s performed beautifully, but is certainly emotional to listen to.
With Bad for You, the Steeldrivers have held tightly to the sound that has defined them through several albums. Rogers, Damrell (who also contributes guitar), Truitt, Bailey, and Mike Fleming (bass) work well together, giving listeners a tight, edgy album sure to please.