Review: The SteelDrivers

The SteeldriversThe SteelDrivers is a recently formed band comprising personnel who have a long association with mainstream country music in Nashville – Chris Stapleton (guitar and lead vocals) with Tammy Rogers (fiddle and harmony vocals), Mike Henderson (mandolin), Mike Fleming (bass and harmony vocals) and Richard Bailey (banjo). Bluegrass seems to be the common factor for them at the moment; for all it’s a return to a genre with which they have had past involvement.

This eponymous CD (Rounder 0598) is their first and it’s a great mix of blues, soul and bluegrass, blended in proportions that the like of which has never before been heard or seen. This is bluegrass with a difference.

All of material was written by Stapleton, mostly with band-mate Henderson but sometimes with other notable writers such as Kevin Welch and Jerry Salley. Although they are original songs, Drinking Dark Whiskey (Gary Allan), If It Hadn’t Been For Love (Darryl Worley), Midnight Tears and Heaven Sent have been recorded by others and in the process have helped to blur the edges between country, Americana and bluegrass music forms.

All of this came before the band was formed about two years ago.

The bluesy opening cut, Blue Side Of The Mountain, sets the tone for most of this collection of 11 songs. With the two following tracks, Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey and Midnight Train to Memphis, we have songs with classic themes written and performed in a modern and original style. They are characterised by Stapleton’s rasping vocals that show traits of Delta blues and Appalachian soul with a rockin’ rhythm.

Midnight Tears and If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone are more straight-forward, with more controlled lead vocals, without loosing its edge and neat harmonies based on a good solid rhythm and great instrumental interplay from banjo, mandolin and fiddle.

If It Hadn’t Been For Love is a grafting of a bluesy cry with a harmonious chorus and a funky chunking rhythm, while To Be With You Again starts as a solo lament, before the tempo picks up and there’s a more positive feeling; a sense of hopefulness.

The ballad-paced Sticks That Made Thunder is an exception to the rule, having a romantic fancifulness, embellished with a playful fiddle that brings a certain Celtic feel to the song.

Creativity and originality are the common factors here. The ingredients are the same as those that Bill Monroe drew together during the early part of the last century but Henderson, Stapleton, Fleming, Bailey and Rogers use those ingredients and speak individually and collectively in quite different ways.

The SteelDrivers stretch the edges of bluegrass music and in so doing have created a niche for themselves. It will be very interesting to see how the band’s career develops.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.