More than likely, the past year or so has been both gratifying and trying for the SteelDrivers, a critically acclaimed bluegrass band comprised of five celebrated former Nashville and Muscle Shoals session players: Tammy Rogers, Mike Fleming, Richard Bailey, Brent Truitt, and Gary Nichols.
The band’s first two albums garnered a deluge of critical kudos. However, when it came time to make Hammer Down, the quintet’s third and latest album, founding members Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton had departed. No doubt this made the challenge of maintaining career momentum and meeting the high expectations created by the first two releases even more daunting. But, at least musically, the band’s new configuration (in which lead singer/guitarist Gary Nichols and mandolin player Brent Truitt replace Henderson and Stapleton) has effectively weathered the storm. Hammer Down is imbued with the same sort of urgency, emotion, and artistry that made the first two albums so appealing.
The most compelling elements of Hammer Down are the hair-raising undercurrents of minor-key heartache, mystery, menace, and turmoil that pulse through delightfully tortured and twisted songs like “Shallow Grave,” “I’ll Be There,” “Burnin’ The Woodshed Down,” and “When You Come Home.” Nichols and Rogers repeatedly put the icing on the cake with the unbridled emotion and power of their shared lead vocals.
Even in their absence, departed members Henderson and Stapleton make significant contributions with some first-rate original songs. The ’Drivers really tear into “Wearin’ A Hole (In The Honky Tonk Floor,)” a magnificent bittersweet barnburner penned by Henderson. The band unleashes similar bravado on “Lonesome Goodbye” and “When I’m Gone,” a pair of fittingly titled numbers co-written by the two ex-members.
No doubt the SteelDrivers have recently battled through the kind of growing pains and trials by fire that have derailed many talented bands. But the confidence and prowess of Hammer Down shows they’ve passed their music survival tests with flying colors. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.)BA