Music News & Reviews

Steeldrivers had an up-and-down year, but they didn't get low

If you don't buy into the familiar notion that timing is indeed everything, then pull up a chair and soak in the saga of The SteelDrivers.

Last year, the blues- and soul-inflected bluegrass ensemble turned music- loving heads in Nashville when it was nominated for a Grammy for best country performance by a duo or group with vocals — a category that had the acclaimed string band competing with Rascal Flatts, Sugarland, Brooks and Dunn, and Lady Antebellum (Sugarland won). (They were nominated again last week, alongside the Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and Dailey & Vincent.)

Then came word that the band was going to contribute two tunes to the Robert Duvall/Bill Murray film Get Low and even would appear in the movie.

Needless to say, that provided some pretty swift career momentum as The SteelDrivers got cracking on their second studio album. Then the bomb dropped. No sooner was work wrapped up on the recording than guitarist Chris Stapleton, keeper of the throaty blues wail that made The SteelDrivers' music so distinctive, bolted.

"Unfortunately, it wasn't the greatest timing," SteelDrivers fiddler Tammy Rogers said. "Actually, it couldn't have been worse timing."

That meant the band had to decide whether to face 2010 with a new album boasting an arresting, roots-savvy voice that was no longer among its ranks.

The call? To start with, The SteelDrivers went even deeper into the well of Southern soul by recruiting Muscle Shoals, Ala., singer-guitarist Gary Nichols before hitting the road for a string of summer festivals and fall headlining shows.

In July, the Get Low soundtrack surfaced. That didn't cause much of an identity crisis, because the two traditional fiddle tunes The SteelDrivers contributed (Whiskey Before Breakfast and Angelina Baker) were instrumentals. In September, though, the second album, now titled Reckless, was released, with the departed Stapleton on vocals.

"We knew it was going to be an odd year in that sense," said Rogers, who will join Nichols and the rest of The SteelDrivers — mandolinist-guitarist Mike Henderson, banjoist Richard Bailey and bassist Mike Fleming — for the final 2010 taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.

"We knew we had a new CD coming out as well as a new singer in the band that wasn't on the album. And we knew it was going to be hard to explain."

To underscore exactly how difficult it was, Rogers recited one of the more repeated rounds of questions and answers when fans lined up after shows this fall to buy albums.

"Which album is Gary on?"

"Well, none of them."

"But this new record just came out, ..."

"Yes, well, ..."

"Still, putting the album out was the right thing to do musically. Hopefully by this time next year, the dust will have settled, we'll have another CD out with Gary on it, and everything will be clear and delineated. That's just the kind of way this year has been.

"To be honest, though, I think we found in Gary the only guy in the world who could pull these songs off in our shows. He comes from Muscle Shoals, so he's steeped in roots music and R&B and all that stuff Chris grew up listening to. But where Chris was more of a soul shouter, Gary has more of a lyrical-singing thing going on. They're both amazing, but it's a bit like apples and oranges."

Rolling with the changes is nothing new for Rogers. She has recorded and/or toured with Patty Loveless, Buddy and Julie Miller, Trisha Yearwood, Rodney Crowell and Iris Dement. In fact, even as The SteelDrivers'career began to catch fire, Rogers was doing double duty by touring as a mainstay member of country megastar Reba McEntire's band.

"The day after we were at the Grammys, I hopped on Reba's private jet and flew to Texas to play the San Antonio Rodeo with her the next night. It didn't seem like such an odd thing to me.

"I worked for Reba for five years. And she has been so supportive every time I've seen her since I left. But when you're playing for an artist, you will always be playing their music. Right now, there is a new energy to The SteelDrivers that Gary has helped bring that feels great. There's some good stuff ahead for us. I know it."