Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Image635713772694983308THE MUSCLE SHOALS RECORDINGS the new release from The SteelDrivers, can pretty much be summed up in one line from song #10, “Too Much”. Written by Gary Nichols and Donnie Lowery, it says, and I quote: “Too much music it all sound the same.” And therein lies the problem……

If The SteelDrivers had hopes that recording this CD in Muscle Shoals would make it better, more exciting, more dramatic or more interesting, they were wrong. They missed it by a mile….. Singer, Gary Nichols, who lives in Muscle Shoals, may have been the driving force in the recording re-location. Even though this band has nothing but A-List musicians, singers and song writers in its membership, “…it all sound the same”. That patented SteelDrivers “SoulGrass” sound is still there in spades, and the requisite minor key songs are present and accounted for, but, there is no life in the resulting product.

Image635713783197924042I’ve been a big fan of The SteelDrivers since their inception, and I was, and still am, blown away by their one-of-a-kind sound. I still listen regularly to their previous releases, and this new one was part of not one, but two, road trips to Oklahoma from Colorado and back in the space of three weeks. I’ve spent hours listening to this, so my attitude towards this record didn’t come lightly.

From my perspective, it appears that the other four members took a back seat and let Gary Nichols provide the direction for this project. When Chris Stapleton departed and Gary came into the fold, I thought that he was the perfect man for the job. He had that same raspy, soulful voice, he wrote good songs and he played great guitar. The direction of the band pretty much kept going in the same direction, which at the time seemed like the right thing to do. Now I’m not so sure…..

I like Gary’s voice a lot, it has an individual quality to it that automatically tells you its Gary. To me, he has the same vocal recognition factor that Willie, Waylon, and so many other “one name” stars have going for them. The problem with his voice on this CD is that he overdoes it. He pushes so hard that his voice almost becomes a parody of itself. He has a “one-of-a-kind” vocal sound, but here he tries to make it TOO raspy, TOO raunchy and it comes across as TOO affected. On the above mentioned song, “Too Much,” he pronounces the word “much” as “mush” about half the time, and “mush” is what it sounds like. If the band had had an outside Producer involved all the way through this project, I doubt that this vocal over-indulgence would have happened. This appears to be one of those times when a band should NOT have produced themselves.

Fiddler Tammy Rogers, as usual, did her best to propel this unit forward. Four of the eleven songs presented here are hers, and she adds her trademark harmony lines to spark the vocals. With Jerry Salley and Liz Henberg, Tammy wrote the lovely Civil War song about the battle at Stone’s River, “River Runs Red”. This same trio also penned “Long Way Down”. Tammy and Jerry Salley wrote one of my favorite songs on the CD, “Six Feet Away” and with former SteelDriver, Mike Henderson, Tammy put together another of the best songs recorded here, “Ashes of Yesterday”. Hot Americana artist, Jason Isbell, plays some great slide guitar on “Ashes of Yesterday”, and also on “Brother John”, written by Gary Nichols and Barry Billings. Jason Isbell is also credited with co-producing both “Brother John” and the Gary Nichols/Dylan Leblanc tune “Here She Goes”. Unfortunately, Jason’s help didn’t add to the lack of sparkle and shine that was needed to perk things up.

There is an old bluegrass joke that could have been written about “California Chainsaw,” the one instrumental track on this recording. It goes: “Why do bluegrass instrumentals have names?” And the

answer is: “So the audience can tell the instrumentals apart”. This song, written by master banjo man Richard Bailey, is not a bad song, it just suffers from the same malaise that the rest of the CD is plagued with. Even adding a song by former singer and guitar player, Chris Stapleton, fails to ignite fireworks from the band. “Drinkin’ Alone”, written by Chris with Jay Knowles, is lyrically fun and worthy of hitting the re-play button.

One of the best songs that Gary Nichols wrote for this endeavor is called “Day Before Temptation”. He and co-writer Catt Gravitt put together an interesting set of lyrics and a strong melody. “Hangin’ Around” is another one of Gary’s five contributions to the song list, and maybe that’s part of the problem why this release doesn’t take off and fly. No matter who the remaining band members brought in, he would never be able to replace the talent of Chris Stapleton. When The SteelDrivers first came out, they were so different, and dynamic, that they stuck out like an elephant in the living room of traditional bluegrass. Also, the songs of Chris Stapleton put a stamp of identity on The SteelDrivers that no other song-writer may have been able to distinguish himself above……. Maybe in the search for songs for this CD, the band should have tried to go for more non-original songs that didn’t fit The SteelDrivers mold and stepped away from their previous persona. Maybe a drastic change was the one thing they could have done that would have driven them to new heights, instead of just trying to stay aloft on the wings of their previous achievements.

Every member of this band is a superb musician, and capable of playing anything that is thrown at them. Brent Truitt, on mandolin, has a musical history of playing with the best and is an “in demand” session man. Richard Bailey is not only a noted session player but, he teaches at banjo camps and passes his knowledge on as part of his regular yearly schedule. Mike Fleming, on upright bass, is an accomplished musician and vocalist that really is the foundation of this band. Tammy and Gary fill out a group that should continue to be a genre leading musical unit. Listening to all their previous recordings proves that, but, maybe what’s needed NOW, to fix the doldrums that “The Muscle Shoals Sessions” has left them in, is a change of direction, or maybe a more overt adventurous attitude. Maybe all they have to do is remove the safety net and give their music, and their identity, a badly needed make over.

Reviewed by: W. J. Hallock,  2015

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