Steeldrivers Rolling with Damrell

The Steeldrivers on stage in Atlanta at the Buckhead Theatre on Feb. 2, 2018 – photo by David Cohen

It’s a testament to the unique sound and immense talent of the Steeldrivers that the Nashville-based bluegrass band can switch lead singers twice without skipping a beat. 

Replacing Chris Stapleton, who has soared to even greater heights as a country artist after leaving the band in 2010 was no easy task, but in Gary Nichols, the band found a similarly gritty and blues-inflected vocal style that meshed with their sound. 

Nichols abruptly departed the group in May of 2017 in a move that members of the band say was “unavoidable,” and after using fill-in singers for some time, including The Voice runner-up Adam Wakefield, 24-year-old singer Kelvin Damrell was officially hired in late January 2018. 

The band’s first official show with Damrell was February 2 at the Buckhead Theatre, and the eastern Kentucky native did not disappoint. The Steeldrivers played for an enthusiastic, capacity crowd in Atlanta that went wild for his powerful vocals.

Starting with a rousing rendition of East Kentucky Home off the Steeldrivers eponymous 2008 debut, the band put the hammer down and never let up, playing 19 tunes spanning all four of their albums. Damrell excelled on songs recorded by both Stapleton and Nichols from the speedy – When You Don’t Come Home, Hell on Wheels and an impressive turn on Long Way Down to the swinging – Good Corn Liquor, If it Hadn’t Been For Love to the soulful – The Price, Heaven Sent, Higher Than the Wall. 

Damrell, who plays a Taylor guitar also noticeably changed the lyrics to the first verse of Steeldrivers fan favorite, Guitars Whiskey Guns and Knives from “Before I got this Martin box” to “Before I got this Taylor box.” 

Ever steady and ever present on the banjo, Richard Bailey shined on the Steeldrivers’ only instrumental of the night, California Chainsaw

As usual, the Steeldrivers were on top of their harmony game and Damrell settled in nicely with bassist Mike Fleming and fiddler Tammy Rogers’ smooth vocals. Coming from a rock background and in typical Steeldrivers fashion, Damrell played a few breaks on guitar that were definitely not in keeping with traditional bluegrass style, but the crowd ate it up. 

The Steeldrivers finished with Blue Side of the Mountain followed by an encore of Where Rainbows Never Die and had the crowd singing along. Just like that, the band was done after an all too quick hour and a half performance. 

Damrell’s vocal stylings land somewhere in between those of Stapleton and Nichols. His voice is smoother and softer than both but he somewhat lacks the low and soulful tones of Stapleton. He can; however match Nichols dynamic range note for note. He first gained fame as the winner of a Chris Stapleton cover contest hosted by Wide Open Country last year, so it makes sense that the Steeldrivers would pick him up. 

An excellent addition, Damrell picks up right where Gary Nichols left off for a group that continues to make the familiar sound of bluegrass unique and along the way has brought many new fans into the genre. 

Catch the Steeldrivers on tour at thesteeldrivers.com/tour-dates/.  

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About the Author

David Russell Cohen

David Russell Cohen is a bluegrass musician and writer based in Atlanta, GA. He got hooked on the music of Monroe, Watson, Rice and Thile while a student at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Aside from participating in local jams and picking up the odd gig, David is the Associate Editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.

  • bronzewound

    I would hope that the author, David Cohen, would correctly get the name of the band.
    It is “The SteelDrivers”. Not just Steeldrivers.

  • Jason Kiernan

    Bronzewound, I noticed the capitalization error myself. However, I think that’s forgivable. Can we expect everyone to be SteelHeads like ourselves?
    All capital letters aside, David did a find job of keeping we SteelHeads in tune (pun intended) with our favorite blues-grass (spelling intentional) group.
    (I said “blues-grass” intentionally, because listening to a great band such as the SteelDrivers, and then listening to a more traditional great band such as Flatt Lonesone…. one can appreciate a difference between ‘bluegrass’ and ‘bluesgrass’.)
    Personally, I’m looking forward to taking my family to a Kelvin show this year and welcoming him into the SteelHead family. We found the SteelDrivers in the late 2000s when country wasn’t country enough. No SD offering has ever failed us. It’s a big shoe to fill, but the positive press regarding KD is reassuring. We’re very excited to experience this next phase in the band’s history.