With its third release on Rounder Records, Hammer Down, the band doesn’t waste any time. Victim Number One pops up in the first line of Shallow Grave, the song that kicks off this stellar 10-song effort: “I buried my love with a silver spade, laid her down in a shallow grave.”
From there, Hammer Down takes an imaginative tour of the dark side, with songs about fast women, lying husbands and broken hearts, all held together by the emotionally spot-on fiddling of Tammy Rogers and the big, soulful voice of Gary Nichols.
Nichols has been with the band for a few years now, so fans have had plenty of chances to see him on stage. But this is his first recorded appearance with the ‘Drivers, and his studio performance is bound to bring new attention to the band.
All of the material is original, written either by current members or by now-departed founding members Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. All of the songs fit the formula of the band’s two previous records: a mix of bluegrass and big country, with a dollop of blues ladled on for good measure. But while they follow that formula, they are not formulaic. These stories are freshly written and presented with gusto and a twist or two.
Take When You Don’t Come Home. Countless songs have been written about relationships ruined by suspicions of unfaithfulness. But how many spurned lovers in song have resorted to this kind of lie detector test: “You can tell the truth to me or this .45?” It’s one of the strongest songs on this project, but far from the only one worthy of repeat listens.
Other tracks that grab me include:
• Burning the Woodshed Down, a painful tale about a boy who lost his mother and was beaten by his father (“daddy beat me black and blue, broke his hickory stick in two”) who gets even by doing what the title of the song spells out. Once again, the darkness of the story is underscored by fiddling that nails the emotion.
• Wearing a Hole, a boogie about a broken-hearted guy who heads to the local watering hole to “drown me a heartache.” This one’s not bluegrass, but that won’t stop your foot from tapping along.
• Lonesome Goodbye and I’ll Be There. Heartache has rarely sounded so real in three-four time. You can hear – and feel – the pain of rejection in the vocals.
Hell on Wheels, a Rogers-penned fast song about a fast woman. This is the only song here that doesn’t reek of depression or desperation, although the woman in question isn’t exactly someone you’d be in a hurry to take home to meet mama.
Even the liner notes on Hammer Down are first-rate. Juli Thanki’s offering is informative and entertaining without the gushy breathlessness that makes some notes sound like they were written by a band member’s mother.
This is a first-rate recording. I’m not quite ready to say that with Nichols at the microphone the SteelDrivers’ new lineup is better than ever. But I’m close enough that a few more listens to Hammer Down and a couple of live performances at the same level just might get me there.