Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Prescription Bluegrass CD Review–The SteelDrivers–HAMMER DOWN


By: W.J. Hallock

The SteelDrivers – Hammer Down

Label: Rounder Records

Release Date: February 2013

From the sounds of the newest CD by THE STEELDRIVERS, it’s obvious that lightning really can strike the same place twice. This release, “HAMMER DOWN,” is the first to include new singer/songwriter Gary Nichols and new mandolin man Brent Truitt. Fiddler Tammy Rogers, bass player Mike Fleming and banjo ace Richard Bailey must have had the gods of musical fate looking over their shoulders, because the replacements they found for Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson don’t miss a lick, sliding right into place and keeping the band’s momentum motorin’ right along.

This recording is every bit as distinct, different and edgy as their previous CD’s, maybe even more so…… there are songs you’ll hear on this one that are a direct result of the three remaining members charging full steam ahead, flexing their musical muscles and lighting a fire under the project. Image634963378845039654Having long time Producer/engineer Luke Wooten’s technical stability and talent in the mix also helped to keep that STEELDRIVERS “machismo” intact.

ROUNDER RECORDS was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the CD, and about a week later I received the liner notes. During that week of having only the music to listen to, I found myself listening even more closely for hints as to where each song came from, and who the writer may have been. Maybe I should do my reviews this way more often….. it certainly improved my listening diligence!

I also found myself going back over both previous SD releases with a more discerning ear. When the liner notes were finally in my hands, it was like Christmas….. lots of surprises! Ten brand new songs, eleven different songwriters mixing and matching talents and wits on subjects as varied as murder, child abuse, hardwood dance floors and teenage girls gone wild. There are straight ahead SteelDrivers bluegrass tunes, and also new ground being broken with compositions that are changing the direction ever so slightly from past recorded performances. The strengthening of the original member’s input, along with the infusion of new blood, could just be the best thing to happen to The SteelDriver’s career.

One of the most defining sounds in a trademark SteelDrivers song has always been Tammy Rogers….. be it on fiddle or vocally, she packs the muscle! Her playing on this CD can only be described as contained volatility! There is lots of power and emotion pouring from her instrument, and a nuance of orchestral classiness, maybe even a little bit of that pre-WWII Stephane Grappelli jazziness. She also shows dexterity on viola and cello, which both add a lush sound to any song. Her harmonies are spot on and her timing is exact. She contributed three co-writes here…. “How Long Have I Been Your Fool,” with Chris Stapleton and “Big” Al Anderson, “When You Don’t come Home,” with Gary Nichols, and “Hell On Wheels,” with Nashville A-List writer Leslie Satcher. In listening to this last one, I wonder why Tammy didn’t REALLY step out and sing lead on it herself……. the song, to me, has an either/or quality to it that could lend itself to a female singing lead. As long as they’re changing things up with new personnel, why not expand the parameters just a little further? As long as they’re getting creative, nothin’ wrong with stretchin’ out……………..

Mike Fleming on bass and vocals, and Richard Bailey on banjo are both original members, and while neither did any of the song writing, their talents and contributions are just as important as Tammy’s in keeping that SteelDrivers sound a viable entity. Mike adds that third vocal part that is imperative to bluegrass singing, and their instrumental prowess is one of the many reasons that when the changes came about, those changes were seamless and fluid.Image634963407564552316 Their playing seems to have an extra bounce to it, also, they both rose to the challenge of breaking in new players, and it sounds like they have pushed themselves to new limits of perfection. This CD is hot lick heaven!

In investigating new mandolin man Brent Truitt, I am absolutely amazed at how much there is to learn about the inner workings, and the many talented people, in the Nashville recording scene! It’s no wonder Brent was asked to step into this slot with The SteelDrivers….. multi-purpose doesn’t even come close to describing his talents, mandolin player extraordinaire, producer, two time GRAMMY winning engineer, studio owner and road dog with top flight acts such as DOLLY, The DIXIE CHICKS and JAMES TAYLOR. On this CD, he played mandolin, bouzouki and guitar, he also had a hand in additional recording, mixing and editing. Indispensable is the opportune word here……and Brent seems to be as happy to be in the band as the band is to have him! Karma, timing or fate? Maybe all three……

There’s just no getting around one important fact…… Chris Stapleton. The aura he put out as singer and composer was what drew attention to the band in the first place. The essential sound that the original members had together was built around him. When I heard he was leaving, I wondered just what would happen next……. I’m a big fan of The SteelDrivers, and I wanted more of THAT SOUND! I wanted what ever “IT” was to continue! I shouldn’t have worried…… I should have known that as talented as the other members were, they weren’t going to go quietly into obscurity or “cover band” status.

The details of how Gary Nichols entered the picture are none of my business, but, as a fan, the result of him becoming the new singer/song writer IS! I don’t have to worry now, because Gary fills Chris’ shoes admirably. Gary has that same raw, whiskey soaked bluesy voice and is a seriously talented, consummate song writer with his own writing style. There will probably be lots of new directions, moods, stories and tales that Gary will tell that will continue to keep SteelDriver fans listening. There are five songs on this CD that are his co-writes, and every one is a good one!

Image634938367010025187To have your CD considered for review, contact: W.J. Hallock ~OR~ Dan King for specific submission and mailing instructions.

The very first song on the CD, “Shallow Grave,” is his, and he wrote it with Barry Billings. It fit’s the SteelDrivers like a glove, dark, murderous and ominous. “Cry No Mississippi,” written with John Paul White and Kris Bergsness, has Gary angry, defiant and growlin’ his emotions to a long gone relationship. I love his vocals on this one, and the harmonies are excellent. When Gary sings the lyrics “Daddy beat me black…… and he beat me blue….. broke his Hickory stick in two,” in his song “Burnin’ The Woodshed Down,” which was written with Frances Specker Bradley, you can hear a child’s anguish in his voice. It has that child abuse “cringe” factor that can be unsettling to listen to, but, Gary isn’t afraid to tackle the subject matter, and I call that courageous. This song has to be my favorite pick on the CD. It’s well written, haunting, lyrically emotional and delivered with conviction. Even if this was the only song Gary brought to the SD table, I’d be a fan!

“I’ll Be There,” written with John Paul Whitehouse, is a waltz time tear jerker of eternal commitment that veers off the SD path, but it leads, it doesn’t follow the songs that have been recorded before by the band. Tammy’s fiddle on this one is gorgeous! His other co-write is the afore mentioned “When You Don’t Come Home,” the first song he wrote as a member of the SD with Tammy Rogers.

The last three songs are proof that Chris and Mike are still SteelDrivers at heart. “Lonesome Goodbye,” and “When I’m Gone,” are both Chris Stapleton/Mike Henderson songs that are SteelDrivers gems even though they’re gone from the band. And Mike Henderson has given his old band mates the best honky tonk two step song I’ve heard in a long time! If “Wearin’ A Hole” doesn’t get you up dancing’, then you must be dead!

This 2013 version of The SteelDrivers is every bit as talented, cohesive and enjoyable as the previous incarnation, so……. YEP! Get your copy of “HAMMER DOWN” and wear a hole in it!


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