All the elements and advantages fell into place this past Saturday when radio station WDVX and corporate sponsor ORNL Federal Union joined forces with the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee to present the fourth and final entry in their 2021 Summer Sessions concert series. Delayed due to the pandemic, the concert offered an exceptional double bill that found Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper teamed with The Steeldrivers. Held in the lovely environs of the city’s Bissell Park recreation area, and with a full hint of autumn in the air, there was little more that could have made it a more perfect evening….
…that is, other than the fact that it was free.
Consequently, despite competition from a football game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and Alabama’s Crimson Tide, the concert still managed to draw a large and enthusiastic crowd. Both bands were, as always, in peak form, with Cleveland and company kicking off the festivities with a rousing display of bluegrass virtuosity that made good on the fact that Cleveland had won IBMA’s award for Fiddle Player of the Year no less than nine times, as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album of the Year for 2016’s Fiddler’s Dream. He had won the Grammy for his most recent solo recording, Tall Fiddler, in 2019.
The band’s live set naturally drew heavily from those two albums, although to his credit, Cleveland allowed his fellow musicians in Flamekeeper — vocalist/guitarist Josh Richards, banjo player Jasiah Shrode, bassist/vocalist Chris Douglas, and mandolin player/vocalist Nathan Livers — share center stage. Cleveland himself is, of course, an integral part of that ensemble and a jocular presence at center stage, but he also eschews any attempt at extroverted showmanship. Other than a nimble duet with Shrode once the other musicians briefly depart the stage, the instrumentation was well balanced, with Douglas and Richards sharing the vocals between them.
The pacing was varied as well — although not necessarily dramatically — from the mid-tempo tapestry of Son of a Ramblin’ Man to the double-time frenzy of the most recent record’s driving title track.
To their credit, the band also parlayed a couple of covers into their setlist — a sprightly take on John Hiatt’s Tennessee’s Plates, and a reflective read of Wayfaring Stranger that found Livers taking the lead. It was somewhat shocking when towards the end of the set, Richards introduced a song called Mescaline that extolled the advantages of certain herbal substances once favored by Native Americans for engagement and enlightenment. Drugs are bad, Richards cautioned with some half-serious scolding, but the song held sway regardless.
That said, Mountain Heartache, a caressing ballad written by Alex Leach, an added highlight from Tall Fiddler allowed the group to offer a fine finale. Given its somewhat heartbreaking narrative, it ended the performance in a decidedly down-to-earth manner.
Nevertheless, the energy level was further elevated once the Steeldrivers took the stage, and judging by several Steeldrivers branded hats and tee-shirts that adorned folks in the crowd, it was clear that fans had turned out in force. The loyalty wasn’t misplaced; not only are they one of the best bands operating within the grassicana environs these days, but fiddler and singer Tammy Rogers happens to hail from East Tennessee, a fact she alluded to numerous times during their performance. She noted that the band made one of their first appearances on WDVX’s popular noontime concert series, The Blue Plate Special, and proudly pointed out members of her family that were in attendance. Referring to the delays caused by COVID, she also made mention that she felt assured that things were now safe and secure.
“As far as I know, none of our shows have been super spreader events,” she maintained while garnering the approval of the crowd.
Regardless of the circumstances, the Steeldrivers certainly proved that their show might, in fact, have been worth the risk regardless. Generally known as the band that birthed the career of a current superstar, Chris Stapleton, they’ve overcome that distinction based on a combined skillset that finds each member of the band a superb soloist each in his or her own right. Rogers, Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass), and Brent Truitt (mandolin) share a lengthy history, both as band members and as musicians with accredited individual careers as well. Their performance reflected both their status and stamina, courtesy of songs that have long been staples of their setlist — with Stapleton and without.
Consequently, there were any number of offerings from all phases of their collective career that were warmly received — Reckless Side of Me, Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey, I Chose You, Long Way Down, Good Corn Liquor, Ghosts of Mississippi, Blue Side of the Mountain, Load the Gun, and Rainbows Never Die among them.
Nevertheless, Rogers felt the need to point out that while several of their songs may deal with decidedly dark subjects, none of the people in the band have ever killed anyone, been to prison, or rank as hopeless alcoholics. On the other hand, she did take pains to mention that at least one of their tunes was about “our favorite people — bartenders.”
Indeed, Rogers added an amiable presence to the proceedings overall. She introduced When You Don’t Come Home by describing it as a reverse power play, one in which the girl wields a weapon. “My husband’s been on his best behavior ever since I wrote that song,” she said to the crowd’s obvious amusement. She noted that original member Mike Henderson’s composition, If It Hadn’t Been For Love, had earned so many plays on Spotify that it earned its composer enough money to go on a shopping spree… at Dollar General.
By the time they came back for an encore with their ever-popular anthem Where Rainbows Never Die, it was clear that the band had won the audience over. It made for an ideal end to an extraordinary evening, while summing up the fact that the crowd had been witness to a true bluegrass bonanza.