The intent and adventure behind the fourth album by The SteelDrivers is summed up in its title: “The Muscle Shoals Recordings.”
As it unceremoniously suggests, the project brought the band to a longtime epicenter of Southern soul music. But here’s the thing: The SteelDrivers are a bluegrass band. At least, that’s true in theory. Given the inspirations shared by a founding member now working as a much-heralded solo artist and the group’s current lead singer, the boundaries between bluegrass and soul-blues music are thin when they exist at all.
“I think we had always pulled the blues influence to the forefront,” said SteelDrivers fiddler and co-founder Tammy Rogers. “In a lot of instances, we went back to what Bill Monroe was doing by incorporating the music of the hills with the blues influence from the Delta — influences from Jimmie Rodgers and people like that. So the band is almost in a direct line musically with what Monroe was doing.
“Obviously, we don’t sound like Monroe. But it’s about addressing all those styles in your music when you have the same basic elements. You’re just picking up on how to plant them. You’re still going to get something different out of the music as long as you’re looking to have an original voice, which is what we try to do.”
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That original voice was initially defined by Lexington-born, Paintsville area-raised Chris Stapleton. He gave his soul-soaked vocals, and more than a few of his songs, to The SteelDrivers’s first two albums before embarking in 2010 on, shall we say, a favorable solo career that has made him one of the popular traditionalists in country music today.
The link between the singer and his SteelDrivers mates remains strong, though. “The Muscle Shoals Recordings,” which won a Grammy earlier this year for best bluegrass album, boasts one of Stapleton’s tunes, “Drinkin’ Alone.” Rogers had even been in contact with him the morning of our interview to thank the singer for a shout-out to the band at an all-star benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame.
As reported by Billboard magazine that morning, Stapleton acknowledged his former band before playing “Where Rainbows Never Die,” a tune he penned for the second SteelDrivers album, 2010’s “Reckless.”
“I was in a bluegrass band called The SteelDrivers, and this song got nominated for a Grammy,” Stapleton said at the event. “Dave Grohl was reading the nominees on television. He was like, ‘Person you know, person you know, person you know, person you know, and… The SteelDrivers.’ And he stops and looks up at the camera and says, ‘And remember, it’s an honor just to be nominated.’ … And it was.”
“Overall, Chris brought really strong identity and individualism to the band,” Rogers said. “To hear him sing an early SteelDrivers song, you would know exactly who he is. You’re just not going to get him to do something that he’s not. That’s kind of what The SteelDrivers were founded upon as well. Each of us was allowed to be very individual. We weren’t trying to sound like somebody we weren’t, so we found our own sound and it worked. Placing what was almost a Southern rock vocal with acoustic instruments is still a big hallmark of our sound.”
Today, that hallmark is carried on by vocalist Gary Nichols. If he sounds especially in his element throughout “The Muscle Shoals Recordings,” it’s because he grew up in the Alabama city as a guitarist and blues-soul vocalist before meshing with The SteelDrivers’ bluegrass-leaning sound.
“It really seemed felt we were able to turn him loose on this record,” Rogers said. “On ‘Hammer Down’ (the band’s third album, released in 2012, and its first to feature Nichols), he was still pretty new in the band and, I think, not really feeling like he was ready to shoulder more of the mantle of the sound. But, boy, he just stepped up to the plate with ‘Muscle Shoals.’
“One of the first songs we cut was ‘Long Way Down.’ When he hit the chorus (where Nichols’ forceful wail sailed into a soul-stirring falsetto), I just went, ‘Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.’ I was so excited. I thought, ‘We’re really going to have a record here. If he is emerging and demonstrating what we can do and we’re getting it down like that, this is going to be really great.’ And it was.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com