When Chris Stapleton left the SteelDrivers a few years back, I was skeptical that the band could recapture the magic with someone else in front of the microphone. His let-it-all-hang-out style defined the band and made its recordings instantly recognizable.
So let me say this as plainly as I can: I was wrong. Gary Nichols’ soulful, edgy voice is a perfect fit, lifting the band a notch or two above the already lofty heights where Stapleton left it when he departed for a solo career. Nichols is everything Stapleton was, with better control of his big voice.
All the evidence needed to make the case for Nichols is contained in The Muscle Shoals Recordings, the band’s fourth CD for Rounder Records, which went on sale today. For the most part, Nichols sounds like he’s channeling early John Hiatt, in all of the best ways, giving these songs a fresh bluesy roots feel.
To be sure, the Drivers aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. But all but the most hidebound bluegrass traditionalists will find much to love here. And it’s not just Nichols. The fiddling from Tammy Rogers is exceptional. One of these years, the voting members of IBMA will catch on and she’ll be on stage collecting a player of the year statute. And the banjo work by Richard Bailey grounds much of the record in familiar bluegrass territory, while Brent Truitt’s mandolin and Mike Fleming’s bass provide the drive.
Nichols and Rogers wrote or co-wrote most of the songs and Bailey added the lone instrumental, a fun little number called California Chainsaw.
As serious fans of the band are well aware, the Drivers have made a career out of dark, mournful songs, usually with a body or two in the ground or bleeding out on the dirty floor. There are plenty of those songs here, most notably Brother John and River Runs Red.
Brother John was written by Nichols and co-produced by his friend since childhood, Jason Isbell. The spooky ballad is one of my three favorite songs here. River Runs Red makes the list too. I’m a sucker for Civil War songs, and this one – with a writing credit for Rogers – would easily make my top 10 songs about that struggle.
But my favorite song of the 11 is Ashes of Yesterday, a waltz that showcases the best of the SteelDrivers – impeccable instrumental work, powerful vocals and songwriting that demonstrates that simply told stories can be powerful. (It’s another Rogers creation.)
No one will ever accuse the SteelDrivers of mastering the high lonesome sound that many folks use in defining bluegrass. They do their own thing, and they do it well.
In fact, The Muscle Shoals Recordings would be solid evidence for anyone wanting to make the case that the Drivers are in the top tier of progressive bluegrass bands. They’re definitely – and solidly – on my short list.