The title of The SteelDrivers’ latest collection has real significance. This popular Nashville-based group—whose sound is as shiny and intense as its name implies—traveled to the legendary recording mecca of Muscle Shoals, Ala., (specifically to the Nutt House Studio in nearby Sheffield) to produce their fourth studio album. And since the band’s colorful, full-out and full-bore style has been dubbed “bluegrass soul,” perhaps they wanted to channel the maximum vibe of soul stars like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin who created classics in Muscle Shoals.
Yet, this isn’t soul music played on bluegrass instruments—quite the opposite. Gary Nichols (lead vocals/guitar), Richard Bailey (banjo), Brent Truitt (mandolin), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), and Mike Fleming (bass) are five highly talented and accomplished musicians steeped in country music who cut their teeth “cuttin’ the ’grass.” Bailey alone has performed in the bluegrass field with Bill Monroe, Vassar Clements, Larry Cordle, Laurie Lewis, and Dale Ann Bradley and recorded with country singers Michael Martin Murphey, Johnny Cash, and Tammy Wynette. His instrumental “California Chainsaw” is one of many highpoints of this album.
The SteelDrivers certainly have their country-bluegrass bona fides. Since their founding in 2005 and their impressive 2008 Rounder Records debut, they’ve been through some significant personnel changes. But they’ve retained, and even further developed, a truly distinctive sound. It abounds in energy, even the waltz-tempo lament “Ashes Of Yesterday” by Rogers and former SteelDriver Mike Henderson. Nichols, whose lead vocals largely define this searing SteelDrivers sound, actually comes from Muscle Shoals. When he’s singing in full cry, either joyous or grieving, he wrings each bit of emotion from every note. He’s a bluegrass Wilson Pickett. In fairness, some staunchly traditional fans of Monroe/Flatt/Stanley-style vocals may find his approach more strangulated than gripping, the kind of singing sure to wow a live audience, but too hot when coming through the recorded medium. That’s a matter of a fan’s personal tastes and a musician’s choices.
Bailey’s banjo picking is equally impeccable in syncopated or melodic passages. Rogers’ fiddle lines can be searing, swirling, or lilting, always inventive. Truitt’s compelling mandolin is particularly good, whether he’s taking leads or cutting rhythm. And Fleming’s solid, tasteful bass lines totally support and compliment the band sound.
The well-selected and varied material here also serves that sound. Just a few examples: “Too Much,” one of several fine Gary Nichols compositions here (co-penned with Connie Lowery), brings appreciative recognition of its protest against—and, ultimately, peacemaking with—life’s frantic pace and imposing annoyances, from taxes to media controversies. Founding member/former lead singer Chris Stapleton is well represented by his original with Jay Knowles, “Drinkin’ Alone,” a clever, syncopated romp that the band rolls out happily. And the brooding “Brother John” by Nichols and Barry Billings tells a tale worthy of a powerful movie plot.
While developing their brand of bluegrass soul, the SteelDrivers honor the Nashville bluegrass scene that keeps them driving. Appropriately, The Muscle Shoals Recordings is dedicated to the memory of Ann Soyers, beloved “Queen of the Station Inn,” the bluegrass-friendly venue where the band has played memorable shows and recorded their well-received live album. It’s a thoughtful tribute that deserves mention here. (Rounder Records, 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverley Hills, CA 90210, www.rounder.com.)RDS