December 1, 2008
With their eponymous debut, The Steeldrivers have delivered a stirring symphony of haunting rhythms and clever stories that are classified as bluegrass. But the five-piece band, a collection of veteran musicians based in Nashville, isn’t constricted by that genre’s time-tested strategies. In the spirit of bluegrass legend, Bill Monroe, their work transcends labels, borrowing liberally from Americana, blues and country in an mix that alters the direction of contemporary bluegrass.
The band’s central figure is Chris Stapleton, one of Music Row’s finest songwriters and a gripping vocal talent. He’s an imposing figure on record with a bluesy howl that uncovers the brilliance in every murder ballad and forlorn love song that it meets. Joined with these stringband stylings, his voice is free to roam. The Steeldrivers is filled with pessimism, drenched in the rich, resonant harmonies of Stapleton and his bandmates.
Signs of discontent are evident from the beginning. On “Blue Side of the Mountain,” Stapleton’s vocal cloaks the desolate tune in darkness. It’s a place “where the sun don’t ever shine,” and the mandolin of Mike Henderson is the mournful witness to a man’s lonesome night. “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” primarily known as a Gary Allan album cut, becomes transformed by the wicked fiddle weaving throughout the bottom-of-the-bottle confessional. And “Midnight Train to Memphis” is a banjo-driven number that’s a dead-on portrayal of a desperate prisoner.
The sheer force of energy on The Steeldrivers can overwhelm, and Stapleton seems to compete with the fierce musicality on display during the album’s climactic moments. He’s most effective when he’s given space, and the pristine ”Midnight Tears” slows the pace with its exceptionally sad harmonies (courtesy of Mike Fleming) and tender instrumentation. The revenge-minded “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” calls to mind the dark murder ballads that informed Johnny Cash’s pair of prison albums (“Never would’ve loaded up a 44, put myself behind a jailhouse door, if it hadn’t been for love.”) With her high harmonies, Tammy Rogers is a riveting presence on a stunning chorus (“Four cold walls without parole, Lord, have mercy on my soul”). A sweet counterbalance to the gloomy atmosphere, “To Be with You Again,” possesses a swampy blues style that shows an ambition to stretch beyond the bluegrass realm.
In the early part of the decade, the O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, coupled with the Dixie Chicks’ masterwork, Home, led a resurgence in the popularity of acoustic musical settings. The Steeldrivers won’t lead a similar rebirth, but it does keep the tradition alive and well. The band’s careful assembly of these eleven songs is a promising entry to modern-day roots music.