Nashville, Tennessee is a nexus - a point where tradition and innovation intersect, where commerce collides with art. It may be the only town around where salaried songwriters and full-time session musicians are as common as accountants and schoolteachers. Music is the product, and the factories line the street, from the swank Music Row mini-high-rises to the low-slung Sylvain Park bungalows. And only Nashville could give birth to a band like the SteelDrivers: a group of seasoned veterans – each distinguished in his or her own right, each valued in the town's commercial community – who are seizing an opportunity to follow their hearts to their souls' reward. In doing so, they are braiding their bluegrass roots with new threads of their own design, bringing together country, soul, and other contemporary influences to create an unapologetic hybrid that is old as the hills but fresh as the morning dew. This is new music with the old feeling. SteelDrivers fan Vince Gill describes the band's fusion as simply "an incredible combination."
The band's self-titled debut album, to be released in January of 2008 by Rounder Records, is simply startling: a set of eleven new originals that profoundly resonate with classic bluegrass soul while exploring entirely modern lyrical and harmonic byways. The blistering, soulful vocals of guitarist and songwriter Chris Stapleton immediately announce that this is dark and dangerous terrain, which the SteelDrivers' proudly rugged ensemble playing quickly confirms. Fiddler and harmony singer Tammy Rogers knows just when to lay off the notes and let the tone take over, while banjo player Richard Bailey neatly segues from cold modal Stanley-style passages to incisive melodic turns. Mike Henderson (mandolin) and Mike Fleming (bass) are the SteelDrivers' engine room, laying out the sparse, driving rhythm on which hangs the songs, mostly co-composed by Stapleton and Henderson.
Stapleton's voice, when melded to his sturdy, vivid songs, immediately distinguishes the SteelDrivers. It is testament to the value that the SteelDrivers place on quality original songs that band actually formed as a result of the songwriting process. Henderson and Stapleton are both accomplished Nashville tunesmiths, with innumerable cuts to their credit. "Chris and I had been writing songs for several years," Henderson explains. "We would write a lot of them as though they were bluegrass songs. But then, when we would get ready to demo them, we would demo them with drums and B-3. And I was thinking, here's all these perfectly good songs just sitting around going to waste."
"My recollection," continues Stapleton, "is that I went to write at Mike Henderson's house one night. And he said, 'do you want to play some bluegrass?' I said, sure. And then next thing I knew, we were in a room with the rest of these guys…"
"These guys" included maverick fiddler and vocalist Tammy Rogers, a longtime fixture on Nashville's alt-country scene and respected session and touring musician. "I had kind of done the big left turn into country and Americana, and thought I had left the bluegrass world behind me in charred remnants," she says. "So when Mike Henderson called me up and asked me, 'Do you want to play some bluegrass?' I said, 'Yeah, I do.' And when we all got together, I was just knocked out by the songs, and by Chris's voice."
Rogers is not the only musician in Nashville taken aback by the band's charisma, power, chops, and songwriting. In a short time, the SteelDrivers had worked up three sets of all original material and were performing to capacity crowds at local haunts like the fabled Station Inn. "I get more inspired listening to their songs, singing, and playing than anything else I've heard in a long time," raved producer and musician Buddy Miller, while songwriter and guitarist Al Anderson summed up the SteelDrivers succinctly: "Great band: new and different. Songs are incredible. They bring something new to the party. I love 'em all. Muscle Shoals meets bluegrass."
The band is quick to credit the informal, casually organic nature of their founding. "We just want to go out and play music that we write and that all of us like," says Bailey. "We want to play our kind of music."
The SteelDrivers' brand of bluegrass – intense, dark, poetic, and inescapably human – is a refreshing reminder of the timeless power of stringband music, and is captured perfectly on The SteelDrivers. Produced by Nashville ace Luke Wooten, The SteelDrivers was recorded mostly live on the studio floor, vocals and all. Its songs grapple with classic themes of regret, love, and redemption, from the escalating prison lament of "Midnight Train to Memphis" to the chilling murderer's plea encapsulated in "If It Hadn't Been for Love." "East Kentucky Home" is a timeless traditional bluegrass lament, with its strains of homesickness, loss, and abandonment, but ingeniously reinvented with off-kilter rhythmic accents and a decidedly contemporary chord progression.
The willingness to set aside the unspoken rules that ruthlessly govern bluegrass set the SteelDrivers apart from the innumerable faceless acts vying for the bluegrass spotlight.
"Certainly we want to keep one foot in the bluegrass world—that's a great thing," says Tammy Rogers, "but I think our music is broader than just a traditional bluegrass format and that's what we all hope for it to be."
The SteelDrivers are:
Richard Bailey - Banjo
Grammy nominated banjo player, Richard Bailey has recorded with such diverse artists as Al Green and George Jones. Featured in the book Masters of the 5-String Banjo, Bailey has performed with Bill Monroe, Roland White, Vassar Clements, Loretta Lynn, Chet Akins, Larry Cordle, Laurie Lewis, Dale Ann Bradley, and countless others. He has also recorded with Kenny Rogers, Michael Martin Murphy, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Ronnie Milsap and has played at Carnegie Hall and on Austin City Limits.
Mike Fleming - Bass/Vocals
A versatile veteran, Mike Fleming lays down the firm foundation and sings the baritone harmony that rounds out the SteelDrivers' sound. A self-confessed "recovering banjo player," Mike has recorded with Holly Dunn, Joy Lynn White, and with groundbreaking singer/songwriter David Olney. In addition to traveling the world during stints with Dunn and Kevin Welch, Mike has appeared on Austin City Limits, Nashville Now, Crook and Chase, and too many Grand Ole Opry shows and festivals to count.
Mike Henderson - Mandolin/Vocals
Mike Henderson is a veteran songwriter and award-winning musician, with several solo albums on both RCA and Dead Reckoning to his credit. He has recorded with such artists as Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Mark Knopfler, Albert King, Hank Williams, Jr., Johnny Lang, Peter Rowan, Guy Clark, John Hiatt, Sting, Delbert McClinton, Bob Seger, Bo Diddley, Faith Hill, Lucinda Williams, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many others. His songs have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Kenny Rogers, Daryl Worley, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Solomon Burke, Marty Stuart, Gary Allan, and Randy Travis.
Tammy Rogers - Fiddle/Vocals
Growing up in a family bluegrass band that also included banjo great Scott Vestal, Tammy brings a lifetime of instrumental and vocal experience to the SteelDrivers. She was also in the legendary pre-Union Station bluegrass band Dusty Miller with Barry Bales, Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey, and Brian Fesler. No stranger to the studio, she has recorded with Neil Diamond, Wynonna, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Bill Anderson, Iris Dement, Randy Scruggs, Patty Loveless, Buddy and Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale, and many more. She has toured the world with Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, Maria McKee, and the Dead Reckoners. Her songs have been recorded by Terri Clarke and Frances Black.
Chris Stapleton - Guitar/Vocals
A rising star on the Nashville scene, Chris Stapleton is a Paintsville, Kentucky native whose powerful "sandpaper to silk" voice gives the SteelDrivers their distinctive sound. He has recorded with Daryl Worley, Gary Allan, Lee Ann Womack, Trent Wilmon, James Otto, and others, while as a songwriter his compositions have been covered by Tim McGraw, Brooks and Dunn, Julie Roberts, Daryl Worley, Trent Wilmon, Gary Allan, Patty Loveless, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Lee Ann Womack, Montgomery Gentry, and the Lonesome River Band. He recently scored a number one singles as the writer of "Your Man," recorded by Josh Turner and Kenny Chesney's "Never Wanted Nothing More."