With three Grammy nominations to their credit, Nashville bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers were quickly emerging as one of the genre’s hottest new acts following the release of their 2010 sophomore album, Reckless. At the time of the release, however, the group was also breaking in a new singer, former Mercury Nashville recording artist Gary Nichols, to replace exiting founder/singer Chris Stapleton. Two and a half years and thousands of miles later, the five-piece troupe has a new project, Hammer Down.
Working again with producer Luke Wooten (Dierks Bentley, Kellie Pickler), The SteelDrivers hold true to the sound they developed over their first two releases. Hammer Down, due in stores February 5, features masterful playing from original members Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Mike Fleming (bass) and Richard Bailey (banjo), as well as new mandolin player Brent Truitt. The fiery vengeance of “Burnin’ the Woodshed Down” features dagger-filled fiddle with sharp banjo harmonies as Gary sings, Gonna kick the ashes all around, with gritty realism that will no doubt be familiar to fans. On “Hell On Wheels,” banjo tears off the starting line and deep bass provides the horsepower necessary to fuel the story’s teenage rebellion, while “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” (co-written by Chris Stapleton and Tammy Rogers) plays with emotions as mandolin slips in and out of pristine open chords. Gary sings that he’s been, abandoned by your heart, with lonely ache through the verse just before he’s joined in warm three-part harmony during the chorus. The songs here are tight and purposeful, with each member providing their own voice to bring out the details in each track.
Where Gary’s addition is felt the most is in the Muscle Shoals, Ala. native’s bluesy, soul-filled delivery. “I’ll Be There” (co-written by Gary with John Paul White of The Civil Wars) is a beautiful ¾-time ballad that hints at both Appalachian serenity and smoky jazz. Tammy’s fiddle winds around Gary’s warm voice as tension builds exponentially to the moment when she joins him in harmony vocals through the chorus. “When You Don’t Come Home,” a traditional no-good-cheatin’ song driven by a strong bluegrass backbeat reveals tremendously dynamic country soul in a tightly wound chorus. And on “Cry No Mississippi” (co-written by Gary, John Paul White and Kris Bergsnes), a lowdown bayou groove marked by loose banjo, Gary sings, A tear or two might fall into my shot of whiskey, like a country-drenched Joe Cocker.
The SteelDrivers paint their sound with touches of classic Honky Tonk, most notably on “Wearin’ A Hole,” which twangs hard with a two-steppin’ chorus and a spot at the bar. The delivery of straight up solid country gold backed with traditional bluegrass instrumentation feels like a great Saturday night. One of the album’s best songs, “Lonesome Goodbye,” features sad fiddle to accentuate the ¾-time chords and comfortable melody. Gary’s voice seems built for the swaying rhythm of the song as he falls into each new line with a gentle touch.
Heartache and revenge are central themes on Hammer Down. The haunting first track, “Shallow Grave,” wastes no time digging deep into a murderous plot as it opens with the line, I buried my love with a silver spade, against ominous fiddle. And on the breakup song, “When I’m Gone,” which closes out the project, the music’s optimistic skip is really about as happy as The SteelDrivers get. However, with songwriting as sharp as the musical barbs and a genuinely soulful delivery, Hammer Down establishes The SteelDrivers as one of bluegrass’ most dynamic acts.
Key Tracks – “Lonesome Goodbye,” “I’ll Be There,” “Burnin’ The Woodshed Down,” “When You Don’t Come Home”