“Guitars, whiskey, guns, and knives / Three’s a crowd and four’s a fight,” is just one of a dozen memorable lines from The Steeldrivers‘ catalog showing how the band has made a living exploring the heartbreak of broken affairs (or what Dolly Parton calls “sad ass” songs.) In spite of personnel changes, this Saturday Soundtrack will look at how the band continues making their own distinctive mark on that well-trodden road.
Songs of drinking, fighting, and bad loving pour out of The Steeldrivers like illegal corn liquor from an upended still. One commentator noted that a trio of dysfunctional relationship songs starts their album Hammer Down; however, it is something of an anomaly if one of their tunes doesn’t go down this path. Over the course of a show, they will sing some of the best sad country phrases around:
- “Drinking dark whiskey, tellin’ white lies / One leads to another, on a Saturday night.”
- “If you can’t be good, be gone.”
- “You put the hurt on me like I never felt before.”
- And the classic: “Never woulda loaded up a 44 / Put myself behind a jailhouse door / If it hadn’t been, if it hadn’t been for love.”
This Nashville-based bluegrass band with day jobs as songwriters and session musicians has shown up on More to Come for years after I first mentioned their performance at Merlefest in 2009. In 2011, I wrote a review of their live show at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis. Their third album, Hammer Down, was included in my list of best bluegrass albums of 2013 when I highlighted traits that have remained with the band through changes in personnel: great songwriting, soulful vocals, and skillful instrumental treatments. In 2015, I again highlighted a Steeldrivers album — The Muscle Shoals Recordings — as being among my list of best roots music of that year. (It later won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass album that year.) The following year I wrote about Adele’s cover of the band’s song If It Hadn’t Been for Love. And I’ve also featured the band when showcasing their original lead singer — the soulful Chris Stapleton — as well as in my New Year’s Eve ode to drinking songs from 2020.
After the Muscle Shoals album, the band seemed destined for new heights. But singer Gary Nichols decided to go his own way and the band was once again facing the need to reset. To go along with original members Richard Bailey (banjo), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), and Mike Fleming (bass), they had already added Brent Truitt on mandolin. Replacing the lead singer to follow Stapleton and Nichols was harder, but after a while they found one in a 25-year-old rock and roll singer from Berea, KY named Kelvin Damrell.
The choice isn’t as strange as it sounds. The band has always had a soul and R&B vibe that is unique among bluegrass bands. Damrell simply had to figure out how his vocal talents fit in this context. The band — which has always prided itself on its songwriting — also took the time to work on new material, primarily led by Rogers and her collaborators.
Bad For You, the band’s fifth album, arrived after this period of adaptation. And having covered so much of the band’s earlier work on More to Come, that 2020 album is what I want to focus on for this edition of the Saturday Soundtrack. The title track, shown here in a live video, opens the album. It sounds like a classic Steeldriver song, full of desperation and danger, with the harmonies and skill you’d expect from Nashville professionals.
The Bartender, shown as part of a series of performances from The Paste Studios, contains another great line of dysfunction. “Some may call me a sinner / but when its all said and done / I don’t pull the trigger / I just load the gun” captures the main character wrestling with his “role as a friend-in-need…or an accessory to a crime.”
Lonely and Being Alone (as in “there’s a difference in lonely and being alone”) is classic country bluegrass. Written by Rogers with Verlon Thompson, it makes the point that just because we’re by ourselves, that “doesn’t mean we’re lonely. We’re alone, and we’re good with that” as one reviewer noted. I Choose You is upbeat, by Steeldriver standards, and is about devotion over dysfunction. What a concept!
The Paste Studio session includes one old Steeldriver song from the Stapleton years, Blue Side of the Mountain. Damrell shows he can handle the band’s classic tunes as well, which will be a relief to Steelheads everywhere.
This is a band to catch live, so keep an eye out for when they may be coming to your city over the next year.
More to come…
Image from The SteelDrivers | Bad For You (photo credit: Anthony Scarlatti)