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Music Review: The Steeldrivers – Hammer Down

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The Steeldrivers’ soulful brand of bluegrass combines rugged musicality with Nashville polish. Though the band has put out just three albums since their 2008 debut (with three Grammy nominations along the way), the weight of experience lends both their songs and their sound a depth of seriousness that distinguishes them from most bands riding the 21st century bluegrass revival. On Hammer Down, out Feb. 5 on Rounder Records, the newly revamped band owes some of that depth to the great veteran musician and songwriter Gary Nichols, who has taken over lead vocal duties.

Most of these songs use typical bluegrass and country forms, changes, and lyrical games like “lipstick on your collar” and “I’m wearin’ a hole in a honky tonk floor,” but there’s also more varied fare, from the minor-key clench of “Burnin’ the Woodshed Down” and the sad, intensely heavy “I’ll Be There” (my favorite song on the disc), to the easygoing sweetness of “How Long Have I Been Your Fool.”

Some of the singalong-worthy melodies, like those in “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” and in “Cry No Mississippi,” suggest the work of the legendary country-western songwriter Kostas, while Nichols sings the latter with a howl that brings to mind John Hiatt at his very best. Indeed the disc is loaded with assured and often inspired songwriting, conveyed with unfailingly superb musicianship exemplified by Tammy Rogers’s fiddle and Richard Bailey’s banjo. Let’s face it, there’s a lot to be said for a band that includes veteran session players but is doing original music.

Bluegrass bands are known for strong vocal harmonies and The Steeldrivers are no exception, but they mostly stay away from the “high lonesome” in favor of a darker, more choral sound that’s quite lovely to hear. In short, this disc is just about as close to flawless as today’s mainstream bluegrass gets, clinging firmly to the roots while making a statement of its own.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Jackie Balentine

    This is one Totally Awesome Group! A must have CD.If you have never had the pleasure of hearing them in person you must make plans to check their shows and you will be glad you did!!!

  • http://www.wendycarlyle.com/ Wendy

    Interesting that you picked up on the John Hiatt similarity. I loved the Steeldrivers the first time I heard them here. My fav song is “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” – I relate to it and even if I didn’t it would be a great song standing on its own.