Adam Steffey is surely one of the most recorded mandolinists in bluegrass this past 15 years or so.
He has spent time with two powerfully influential acts – Alison Krauss & Union Station and Mountain Heart – where he has been featured on both mandolin and lead vocals. Adam is currently a member of Dan Tyminski’s band, and lent his mandolin to Dan’s Wheel’s CD.
Steffey’s name can also be found in the credits on a great many new recordings, with Alecia Nugent’s Hillbilly Goddess being the most recent. He has been voted as the IBMA’s Mandolin Player Of The Year 7 times, and is an adjunct faculty member in the ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program.
But for all that, solo projects under his name have been in short supply. Save one CD from 2002, Grateful, Adam’s music has been found only on albums by other artists.
Thanks to Sugar Hill Records, that is all about to change. They will be releasing a new Adam Steffey CD in September showcasing his singing and mandolin playing, and the musical artistry of the many fine musicians with whom he has been associated in the recent past.
The new album will have 12 tracks, split three ways. Four will be instrumentals, Adam sings five, and three feature guest vocalists. And what a group of guests! Alison Krauss, Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski each take center stage for one song.
Helping out on the picking side are Ron Block and Ron Stewart on banjo, Clay Hess, Bryan Sutton and Dan Tymisnki on guitar, Stuart Duncan and Ron Stewart on fiddle, Randy Kohrs on a variety of resonator and slide guitars, and Barry Bales on bass. Tina Steffey, Adam’s new bride, adds clawhammer banjo to one track as well.
I met with Steffey last week to talk about the new CD, and he mentioned how excited he was to see it as a Sugar Hill release.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for some time, but was unsure how well it would be received in today’s uncertain climate for record labels. I discussed it with Crossroads Music, where my Grateful CD was released, and found that they were moving towards digital-only distribution.
I really wanted actual CDs for sales at shows, and Barry Bales suggested that I contact Gary Paczosa at Sugar Hill.”
Adam and Gary had worked together many times. Paczosa engineered the AKUS albums while Adam was with the band, and was now the A&R director at Sugar Hill. Bales had already signed on as producer for the new project and he had to nudge Adam a bit to make the contact.
“I really didn’t figure that this was something that would interest Sugar Hill, but I emailed Gary about it, and he called me back right away. He said that they really didn’t have many bluegrass releases scheduled, and mine sounded like it would fit right in.
Gary and Barry agreed to produce together and we started tracking at Gary’s studio in February. He is a brilliant engineer, and so is his assistant, Brandon Bell.”
Of the four instrumentals, two are newly-written Steffey originals. The other two are a version of Durang’s Hornpipe and Half Past Four.
“I knew that I didn’t want this to be an all-instrumental record, but I absolutely wanted to pick some on there. We did Durang’s with a sort of old time feel in D, and Tina played clawhammer banjo. That one ended up going down live.
Half Past Four is an old time song I learned from a YouTube video shot at Clifftop, though we grassed it up pretty solid.”
Whenever you talk with Adam about his singing, the apologies start to flow. He sings with a distinctive, gritty baritone and despite his self-deprecation, his vocal numbers with AKUS and Mountain Heart were always among their most requested songs. No Place To Hide with Alison and Mountain Man with MH are perfect examples.
He mentioned three of the five that he sings…
Trusting In Jesus is a Ron Block song that I remember from my time with AKUS. We actually recorded it for the Everytime You Say Goodbye album, but it ended up not being included.
When Ron was in the studio tracking with us, I asked him if he had any new songs we might consider. Ron said that he really hadn’t been writing much recently, and then he reminded me that Trusting In Jesus had never been released.
Then I cut Don’t Lie To Me, a Red Allen song from the 1960s.”
The song that had Adam more animated than any other is one that he thinks could end up being the title track.
After I had cut my vocal, Barry called me over and said that he had a sort of crazy idea for this one. He suggested that we try something different, and call Chris Stapleton from The Steeldrivers to come in and sing harmony. I love Chris’ voice, so I was all for it.
Barry gave him a call, and luckily he was in town. Chris only lives a few blocks from Gary’s studio, and said that he could be right over. Barry explained that we wanted to try something different, and that we weren’t even sure it would work.
Chris has a gravelly kind of voice – like mine, only good – but I didn’t know he had such a wide range. Barry had him adding harmony lines, and they just tried all sorts of different things. He really made that song, and he was in and out of the studio in 45 minutes.”
I’ll admit that I’m a big fan of Adam’s singing and am delighted that he will be doing the bulk of the vocal tracks on the new recording. Still, it’s hard not to be excited about a new album with such stellar guest singers.
The one Dan sings is Let Me Fall, which I heard Scotty Stoneman sing on a White Brothers CD. It’s a real barn burner and we are already doing it on our shows. Somebody actually requested it recently at a show which blew my mind since we’ve only performed it a few times.”
Ronnie Bowman sings Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends, a Kris Kristofferson song that was a hit for Ronnie Milsap in 1974.
“When I called Ronnie about doing this song, he had just been to see Ronnie Milsap at The Ryman. As soon as I told him the title, he said, ‘No… not Ronnie Milsap!’
He was concerned since Milsap never misses a note, but then again, neither does Ronnie Bowman. We did it as a ballad, and he sang the feet out from under it.”
Adam’s biggest concern was finding the right song for Alison Krauss. Knowing her to be such a perfectionist, he knew that the fit had to be right.
“Actually Barry came up with the idea of her doing Warm Kentucky Sunshine, one that The Bluegrass Cardinals had on their Cardinal Class record. Barry said that they had been jamming on that one backstage with AKUS, and sometimes during sound check, and that she did a beautiful job with it.
She liked the idea and we needed another ballad so it turned out perfect.
Working with Alison in the studio is a treat. She is such a warm, real and funny person but when it comes to music, she is a genius. She did a scratch track that sounded perfect to me, but she is coming in sometime this week to cut a finished vocal track.
Most of her fans don’t know what a down-to-earth person she is. I got to see her and Robert Plant when they were in Roanoke last year, and took Tina backstage after the show to meet everyone. Alison came up and acted embarrassed saying ‘I was so nervous up there knowing you were in the audience. I was up on stage going ‘Adam is going to think this is so weird.’ ‘
Of course the music was fantastic. She introduced me to Robert Plant, who was also a regular guy. He even recognized my name and knew that I had been in Alison’s band.
That was a weird moment…”
All in all, Adam says that this was his most rewarding time in the studio to date.
“Barry and Gary made it so easy for me. All I had to do is sit down and pick.
If no one else likes it, at least I had a whale of a time!”
Somehow, I don’t thing that will be much of an issue.