Longtime bluegrass lovers will recall the buzz that accompanied the release of the first album from The Steeldrivers in 2008. The self-titled project on Rounder featured a new sound in the bluegrass world, and was the first introduction for most people to the music and the singing of Chris Stapleton, who dominated country music charts in 2016.
Bluegrass fans took to the band right away, and they were a hit on the festival circuit, but they also caught the ear of more mainstream music critics who brought them to the attention of a good many folks who never followed our music very closely. The combination of Stapleton’s bluesy, gritty voice and the distinctive songs that he and Mike Henderson wrote for the album, quickly found favor with listeners who might not have been drawn to more traditional bluegrass music.
And now, almost exactly nine years to the day, Rounder reports that The Steeldrivers has sold more than 100,000 copies – 100,086 to be exact, according to this week’s scans. This includes all sales, both digital and on CD, achieving totals that are quite rare in our industry. Ken Irwin with Rounder tells us that they have only seen this many scans of a single title from people like Alison Krauss, Steve Martin, and Nickel Creek.
The ‘Drivers got together in Nashville in 2005, at first as much for fun as for anything else. Chris and Mike wanted a way to try out new songs and play acoustic music, and they hooked up with fiddler Tammy Rogers, banjo player Richard Bailey, and bass man Mike Fleming to form the Steeldrivers. They liked the sound, and decided to share it with others, and Rounder signed them immediately after catching a festival set in ’07.
Fleming tells us they never anticipated such success when the group was new.
“None of us could have ever imagined that what started as a pickup band would ever sell 100k copies of a record. At the beginning we didn’t even know if we’d make a record. But The SteelDrivers did strike a chord with many folks in and out of the bluegrass genre. It became a blueprint for our subsequent recordings and motivation to create more ‘uneasy listening’ music.”
Here’s a video of them at Grey Fox during the summer of 2008.
Within a few years the constant touring became too much for both Stapleton and Henderson, and they left the group, Chris in 2010 to focus on his own music career, and Mike in ’11 to try something different musically. But the band kept right on rolling, bringing in Gary Nichols on guitar and lead vocals, and Brent Truitt on mandolin. They have continued to perform and record together as The Steeldrivers, with several more successful albums since that first in 2008, and a new one in the works for this year.
Rogers says that every artist knows that big sales numbers are possible once new music is released, but that they never expected this.
“When you make an album, you never really know what will happen once it’s finished and out in the world….it kind of takes on a life of its own! The first SteelDrivers record has been like that. We all felt like it was a great record and really captured us exactly as we were, but I don’t know if any of us thought it would go on to break 100,000 in sales. Kind of unheard of in the bluegrass world….or at least not something that happens very often! I’m thankful to have been part of it.”
Surely Chris Stapleton’s success in country music over the past two years helped put them over the top, but Irwin said that only about 24,000 scans came in during 2016.
To help celebrate this sales milestone, Rounder has plans to shortly re-release that debut record on audiophile vinyl. More on that soon.
Well done Steeldrivers, and well done Rounder! Congratulations all around.