The SteelDrivers arrived in the bluegrass world like a hail storm hitting a hobbled mule. Before I heard a single note from the SteelDrivers, some friends of mine saw them open for Marty Raybon at a small outdoor bluegrass venue near Lebanon, Ohio, and raved about them. Then, after listening to that first SteelDrivers recording, I was quickly on the bandwagon. The music was fresh, the songwriting strong, and they were putting the blues back in bluegrass.
February marked the release of their new recording Hammer Down. It will be the first album to feature the group’s current lineup. While the band lost some key members along the way after their initial success, they have landed on their feet and are ready for a new era.
The SteelDrivers formed, as the now well-known tale is told, as the result of a living room jam session by some music industry professionals who wanted to play some bluegrass. That original version of the band featured the bluesy songwriting and singing of Chris Stapleton, the mandolin and slide guitar of Mike Henderson, the solid banjo playing of Richard Bailey, the steady bass of Mike Fleming, and the awesome fiddle work and vocals of Tammy Rogers.
“I was still out on tour with Reba McEntire. I think I still had a Nashville publishing deal then, and I was doing what I had been doing for ten or fifteen years in country music,” said Rogers. “I was being a freelance country musician. I was doing sessions and writing songs and doing the occasional Reba McEntire gig. So, we played the VFW in Franklin, Tennessee, and people kind of flipped out and suddenly there were people who wanted to come to the VFW to see us. The next thing we know, we were booked at the Station Inn and it was full, and it started taking off from there. We tried to keep it under wraps until we had a good set or two of material to play out. And, pretty quickly, we determined that we weren’t going to do a bunch of covers because Mike [Henderson] and Chris had this amazing catalog of songs that knocked everybody out. Every time we’d get together, they’d pull out two or three more songs.”
The SteelDrivers’ first album climbed the bluegrass charts and earned the group a Grammy and IBMA award nominations and led to performances on national television. Two years later, however, Stapleton left the group to concentrate on songwriting after recording the band’s second effort titled Reckless. That happens often in the music world, especially on the bluegrass side of the ledger. The problem was in the timing, as in Stapleton’s vocals were all over that second album front and center, yet when the group toured behind it, he was gone.
All was not lost during that time of transition as a bit of good luck hit the band when Adele, one of the most popular singers on the planet, mentioned the group and sung one of their songs on her Adele: Live At The Royal Albert Hall DVD. Says Adele on the DVD, viewed around the world, “I’m going to do a cover now by the SteelDrivers who are based in Nashville, and I heard them about 18 months to two years ago, and this is the first song I heard by them…It’s called ‘If It Hadn’t Been For Love,’ and I love it. So if you like it, check out their song, because it’s just incredible. They are wonderful.”
“You know, that most random stuff, you can never plan that,” says Rogers. “You can’t even pay money for that kind of publicity. It’s crazy. Fortunately, I have to say, that really kind of transported the band through a really difficult time. Because, by the time the second record Reckless came out in September of 2010, Chris had already left the band. So we had to spend all of that year doing press and publicity and promoting a record and our singer wasn’t even out with us.
“That was really awkward and unusual and was almost like starting back from square one. But, in all of the interviews I did, I made it clear that he didn’t grow up dreaming of being in a bluegrass band. That wasn’t his end-all and be-all. When I was growing up as a kid, that was it. I mean, I never thought about making my living in country music. That just kind of happened for, you know, a gazillion years. So, I get it, and I understood why he was okay with doing something else because I’m sure he grew up wanting much more to be in a rock-and-roll band than being in a bluegrass band. So, I just look at it and I’m thrilled that he was into it as long as he was, and I know that he is proud of what we accomplished and the music that we made. We’re still friends and I’ll see him in town occasionally and we text each other and he is having tremendous success as a country songwriter. He’s worked really hard at getting that career off the ground.”
So, the remaining SteelDrivers had to adjust and regroup. They landed on their feet with the addition of Alabama vocalist and guitarist Gary Nichols, who has a similarly bluesy and powerful rasp in his voice like Stapleton. “It’s unbelievable,” says Rogers, about finding Nichols at just the right time. “It’s crazy that it happened. We’re kind of looking around and honestly, I felt adamantly opposed to trying to find somebody that sounded like Chris. I thought it would be contrary to what the band had always stood for, as in being very individual and very unique and everybody being who they are and what they are. We couldn’t go out of our way to find somebody and make them sound like Chris or expect them to sing like Chris. We’re doing this because of the music and the integrity of the music, and it is not about anything other than that. And if it becomes anything other than that, then we’re not doing it.
“So, we had a couple of guys come in and sing and they were way different, but it just didn’t seem like it was the right fit. Then, one night, Janet, Mike Henderson’s wife who is pretty computer savvy, was looking around and listening to music and somehow stumbled across Gary’s video from when he was on Mercury Records. I think his first single was ‘Unbroken Ground,’ which we will occasionally do now on acoustic. She called Mike over and said, ‘Mike, I think I might have found your new lead singer.’ Mike called me the next day and said, ‘Hey, do you know this guy Gary Nichols?’ I said, ‘His name looks familiar, but I don’t know if I’ve met him or not.’ Mike said, ‘Go to the website and check him out and see what you think. He sounds amazing. He’s from Muscle Shoals.’ I said, ‘If he’s from Muscle Shoals, Jeff [Tammy’s musician husband Jeff King] knows him because he’s been going down there and recording at Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound for at least 15 years.’ So I called Jeff and said, ‘Hey, have you ever done any sessions down in Muscle Shoals with Gary Nichols?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know Gary.’ He made one phone call and got his number.”
After Gary’s contact information was acquired, there was no taking the time to find his “people,” so to speak. The contact was immediate, direct and bold.
“Mike just cold-called him,” says Rogers. “Gary had not heard of the band at that point, but he knew Chris. They had written together when Gary had his Mercury Records deal and Gary said, ‘Oh man, I’m the biggest Chris Stapleton fan in the world.’ And, who isn’t, really? So, he listened to us and called Mike right back and said, ‘Yeah, this sounds amazing. I’d be into coming up and sitting in with you guys and do a little picking and seeing what works.’ He came up and the first song out of his mouth was ‘Blue Side Of The Mountain’ and we kind of looked at each other and went, ‘So what is there to really talk about?’”
The SteelDrivers would have to deal with yet another big loss in late 2011 when Henderson left the band to do other projects.
“That was a total surprise,” says Rogers. “I was not expecting that. But honestly, I think as much as he loved the band and it was an amazing outlet for his songwriting, he just didn’t want to travel as much as the rest of us. We were ready to go, and wanting to go out and take it farther. So, we were ready to go in and record, and he pulled the plug right before that weekend. But looking back, it was a smart thing because he said, ‘You know what? I’m not ready to go out and tour for the next two years for this album we’re getting ready to do. It’s better for you guys to go and get people that are actually going to be there.’ It was a crazy thing. I really thought when Henderson left us, ‘Ok, here we go again. This may be the time to hang it up because who is going to be able to walk in and hit the ground running and know forty or fifty original tunes and work on the new project?’”
The answer came in the form of musician, producer, recording engineer, and music business veteran Brent Truitt. “I had no idea that Brent would be interested in going out with us,” says Rogers. “I mean, he’s got a studio here in town and he stays incredibly busy. But, sure enough, Richard had called him and said, ‘Hey, Mike decided he didn’t want to do this. Are you into covering some gigs until we find a replacement?’ He said, ‘Man, I’d be into just doing it.’ Richard asked, ‘You mean doing it doing it, as in doing the band?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ And again, it was an amazing turn of events, a God thing, whatever you want to say, because he had been our only sub anytime Henderson couldn’t go, so he knew all of the old material. It was crazy.”
So, the new version of the SteelDrivers is headed into 2013 loaded for bear, ready to bring to life the wonderful new Rounder Records album Hammer Down. Every song on the project is new, with five cuts co-written by Nichols and three co-written by Rogers. And in a very cool move, there are four songs penned by either Stapleton or Henderson or by both together.
“I don’t want every record to sound the same,” says Rogers. “I think it’s important for us, as a band, to continue the journey creatively with new people, new information, and a new batch of songs. The second album was bluesier with the addition of the National guitar and turning Chris loose to belt a little bit. But, I think this new album has a little bit more emphasis on the picking, for lack of a better word. It’s really interesting. I’m really happy with the direction we’re taking. Obviously, Brent is a mandolin master, so he is bringing a lot to the table. I think there’s a lot more intricate stuff going on. Chris was never really playing any lead guitar, although he was a good rhythm player who had a definitive chunking kind of style. But Gary is bringing in some leads that are very cool. We do this one tune that, to me, sounds like a modern Larry Sparks thing, and Gary’s playing is awesome. So, that part of it is spread out a little more evenly. On the other records, it was more me and Richard doing all of the fills and the instrumental stuff. But now, this feels like there is a lot of depth to all five instruments, so we’re excited about that.”