Capitol Theatre at Capitol Theatre
Bad For You, the chart-toppingfifth album from Nashville's hard-edged bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, arrivedafter a period of triumph and adaptation. The band's 2015 release, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, won the GRAMMYÒ award for ‘Best BluegrassAlbum.” In bluegrass and acoustic musiccircles, respect for this Nashville quintet is so strong that the win seemedsomehow inevitable, like a box being checked off. For the band though, as wellas its passionate audience of Steelheads, it was a much bigger deal. The GRAMMYÒ validated the vision andcollective striving of a string band with a rock and soul heart. Industry recognitionand better bookings followed. Then just when the follow-up album was comingtogether, vocalist and guitar player Gary Nichols decided he needed to go hisown way.
It was a setback, to be sure. Negotiating the transitionfrom the magisterial soul country voice of band co-founder Chris Stapleton toNichols had taken work and perseverance, but it had led to the most cohesive,impactful Steeldrivers to date. With a second singer on his way out in eightyears, there were questions about how to go forward, if they could at all. Butthis was a unique, highly resilient band, rooted in the kind of mutual respectthat only many years of personal history can forge.
Richard Bailey (banjo), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Mike Fleming(bass) and Brent Truitt (mandolin) have been musical colleagues and friends formore than three decades, which is to say nearly all of their adult lives. Theywere bringing their instrumental, vocal and songwriting skills to variousbands, ad hoc gigs, picking parties and recording sessions long before TheSteeldrivers first came together. That happened in 2005 when Nashville veteranMike Henderson and Stapleton, a young gun on Music Row, had co-written a batchof songs that felt right for bluegrass instrumentation. Some casualget-togethers with Bailey, Fleming and Rogers led to a run of shows, a dealwith historic Rounder Records and critical acclaim.
In a story now well-known, Stapleton hit a streak of rocket-ridesuccess as a solo country artist, and the Steeldrivers resolved to continue on,maintaining the overall soul-grass feeling of that founding voice without hiringa clone. Henderson stepped aside as well, with many things on his plate. Theband, made of sturdier stuff than one voice or part, called on Truitt to playmandolin. The search for a new singer after Gary Nichols was trickier. Theywanted to keep their cards close to the vest, and they weren't looking for amainstream bluegrass singer. It wasn't easy, but one day, says Tammy Rogers,"My daughter found him on YouTube." This designee was bound to beunconventional, and he was, a 25-year-oldrock and roll singer from Berea, KY named Kelvin Damrell.
"I was pretty fresh to bluegrass," Kelvin says."The only bluegrass I'd heard was couch pickin' at my grandparents' house,and I wasn't into it, to be completely honest. I was a rocker. Cinderella wasmy favorite band before I met these guys." But that kind of angularperspective was more in tune with The Steeldrivers than he could have known,and his initiation into bluegrass infused a convert's zeal into hisperformances. "Everybody in the band were virtuosos," he says. "AndI'd never seen that side of bluegrass. I thought it was just that old footstomping traditional stuff, so I was surprised to hear this. And I knew I had alot of work to do to keep up."
While Steeldrivers 3.0 rehearsed and started playing shows, Rogers,the band's dynamic fiddle player and harmony vocalist, leaned hard intodeveloping new material. "Having been known as a songwriting band, I feltlike it was still what the band needed to do," she says. Indeed, original,band-written songs were as much a part of the Steeldrivers origin story as its infectiousgrooves and its R&B leanings. Those first rehearsals and shows with Stapleton/Hendersonsongs included "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey," "If It Hadn't Been ForLove" (which was covered by pop star Adele), "Sticks That MadeThunder" and other certified band standards.
Rogers surveyed material she had going back a few years andcalled some of the co-writers, such as Jerry Salley and Liz Hengber, who'dcontributed songs to the original Steeldrivers eponymous debut, to Reckless in 2010, to Hammer Down in 2012 and to the Muscle Shoals Album of 2015. The process of sifting through 50 or 60 prospect songswas of course influenced by Kelvin's taste, sound and phrasing. "There aresongs here that aren't even bluegrass to me," he says. "They're rockand roll." He cites the title track "Bad For You" as a primeexample. "Banjo is the only bluegrass thing about it," he says.
That album-opening title track churns slowly like apaddle-wheel steamer negotiating a shallow muddy river. Kelvin's voice risesand howls with a poignant desperation. Tammy's fiddle carves lonesome answeringlines, and the 15-year SteelDriver tradition of dark, jagged-edged goth-grassfeels intact and heading for new places. Then in "The Bartender (Load TheGun)" the main character wrestles with his role. Is he a friend-in-need oran accessory to a crime? It's a question perfectly suited to the Steeldrivers'unsparing blues. Up next, "12 O'Clock Blues" takes us inside thehaunted anxiety of insomnia. Written by Rogers with longtime musical companion KieranKane and his duo partner Rayna Gellert, it became Kelvin's favorite for its grooveshockwaves and its depiction of a shared human experience.
There are brighter offerings as well, including the pureardor of the project lead-off #1 single "I Choose You" and theCajun-inflected country bounce of "Glad I'm Gone," in which the girldoesn't come back and the singer is damn glad about it. Yet the emotionalseriousness of the whole collection is firmly established by "FallingMan," a song inspired by the breathtaking photo of an unidentified victimof 9/11 "caught in a frame" and thus made immortal. "I'll neverdie/I'll never land/Call me what I am/A falling man," sings Kelvin in hismost vulnerable performance, with Rogers in sympathetic harmony. It leaves uswith chills.
That a quintet could sound so consistent over time, whileadding new repertoire and even new lead singers, is a testament to aclassically Nashville way of thinking. "I always say we just happen to usetraditional instruments, but we're really a singer-songwriter band,"Rogers says. One regularly hears the edict to "serve the song" amongtop tier players in Music City. But because this is bluegrass, and this is theSteeldrivers, the truth is that often, serving the song means you gotta playlike hell.