This time last year, the blues-meets-bluegrass troupe The SteelDrivers was relishing a Grammy win. Its 2015 release, “The Muscle Shoals Recordings,” took honors for Best Bluegrass Album, cementing the stature of a band that had built a reputation on meshing styles. It also affirmed the vocal command of Gary Nichols, a singer who grew up in Muscle Shoals, as well as an ensemble sound that found a natural link between string music and Southern fried blues and soul.
“I think we had always pulled the blues influence to the forefront,” said SteelDrivers fiddler and co-founder Tammy Rogers, prior to an October concert at Renfro Valley. “In a lot of instances, we went back to what Bill Monroe was doing by incorporating the music of the hills, the blues influence from the Delta — influences like Jimmie Rodgers and some of that stuff. So the band is almost in a direct line musically with what Monroe was doing.”
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The next chapter is something of an encore — a return to the beginning of that hybrid sound and a record that largely introduced a Lexington-born artist who has since become one of country music’s most celebrated roots-driven stars. On Feb. 17, Rounder Records will issue The SteelDrivers’ self-titled 2008 debut album on vinyl.
The recording made a considerable stir upon its initial release by earning a Grammy nomination and yielding a song (“If It Hadn’t Been for Love”) that Adele covered on the import editions of her multi-platinum “21” album. But from an historical standpoint, “The SteelDrivers” offered one of the first performance platforms for Chris Stapleton, the Kentucky native who was then the band’s lead singer and guitarist.
Nichols is far more than a torchbearer of that sound, however. Throughout “The Muscle Shoals Recordings,” especially when his soul-stirring falsetto ignites “Long Way Down,” he serves as the foundation of a new generation Americana sound that returns to Lexington with a headlining performance at Manchester Music Hall.
Steep Canyon Rangers
Ever since the Steep Canyon Rangers formed an unlikely alliance with comedian, film star and bluegrass banjo aficionado Steve Martin, the North Carolina troupe has often been viewed as a back-up band. Admittedly, a celebrity of Martin’s stature can, unintentionally, create such a misconception. There is also no denying the exposure the band received as a result of that partnership — especially when it expanded in 2013 to include pop singer-songwriter Edie Brickell — introduced a new audience to the progressively minded bluegrass music the group has been creating for more than 15 years.
But listen to the band on its own, either on the 2015 album “Radio” or, better still, onstage Friday night at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, and you will get an immediate sense of how potent the Rangers can be without the aid of a guest list.
In the case of “Radio,” the band works with simple components. The music, from the propulsive urgency of the album’s title tune to the more plaintive reflection of “Down That Road Again,” possesses a country-esque accessibility. Ditto for the rich harmonies led by guitarist and vocalist Woody Platt and the crisp instrumentation centered on banjo player Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders and mandolin player Mike Guggino, although percussionist Mike Ashworth helps fuel the rhythmic daring that runs throughout “Radio.”
Of course, the Rangers had a little help in furthering its modernistic string sound. Jerry Douglas, who has made a career out of discovering new avenues for traditional bluegrass inspirations, produced “Radio” and adds typically animated runs on dobro to the Rangers’ already industrious sound.
This will be a show you will want to arrive early for. Paintsville singer-songwriter Tyler Childers, fresh off two wins at the Lexington Music Awards, will open. Aside from having four compositions on NewTown’s recent “Harlan Road” album, Childers has released a new, eight-song recording, “Live on Red Barn Radio I & II.” As the title suggests, the project gathers a pair of digital EPs initially released in 2013 and 2014 that underscore the pronounced Appalachian spirit in Childers’ songs.
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
At 72, Lawson, remains one of bluegrass’ most esteemed bandleaders, with regional roots that extend back to his late 1960s Lexington tenure with J.D. Crowe in the Kentucky Mountain Boys.
As a reflection of his artistic clout today, Lawson’s 2016 Quicksilver record “Burden Bearer” is up for a Grammy next weekend for Best Bluegrass Album.