Rounder Records 1166106242
Today, it is refreshing to hear a band doing what they do without the help of session musicians. This band has an unmistakable sound. It is country-rock attitude played as bluegrass. As the industry emasculates the music of the real people, it is great to hear a band that knows who they are and how to get it done. The mix on the project is dark, thick and gothic. It works with their material.
It is not just the strong lead vocals of Chris Stapleton, it is the powerful combination of Tammy Rogers’ fiddling matched with Richard Bailey’s subtle but driving banjo that does much to turbo charge this project. Mike Henderson’s mandolin and slide resonator guitar playing puts the mud in the fissures created by the band’s ability to amalgamate the blues and bluegrass into a personal statement. The tight band arrangements set up some of the best new material out there. Rogers’ fiddling is down and dirty, gritty and sharp in turns. Her harmonies punctuate the choruses with searing soul. Mike Fleming is a masterful bassist. He and Rogers supply some wonderful harmonies that don’t always follow the bluegrass mold. The interplay of the instruments demonstrates that this is first and foremost a band, and not a showcase for one member over another.
While “Good Corn Liquor” seems to be getting airplay, the complex ballad “Where Rainbows Never Die” demonstrates another dimension of this complicated band. They are not content to skim the surface. They get to the core of feeling, the message, and the song. “Ghosts Of Mississippi” quotes the late Delta blues legend Son House, “the blues came walking like a man,” all the while capturing the sound and feel of another long-gone blues stylist and songwriter, J.B. Lenoir.
Mr. Monroe caught something of the blues in his music—actually, a great deal. But the world has changed to a large extent since then, and both bluegrass and the blues have changed along with it. The SteelDrivers tap into the symbiosis of these forms, melding them into an uptodate synthesis.
If you like blues-infused bluegrass, this is an essential recording. The bad news is Chris Stapleton, whose vocals take this band to a higher level, has sadly has left the group. He cowrote a lot of the material on this project with Mike Henderson. The good news is we have this fine recording that represents a time and place in history when some stars aligned to present us with a most powerful musical statement of our time. One more bit of good news is there are four sound files on their website featuring their new lead singer, Gary Nichols, so all is not lost. (Concord Music Group Inc., 100 N. Crescent DR., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, www.rounder.com.) RCB