In retrospect, it seems so obvious; take the intricate acoustic honesty of bluegrass and mix it with the raw passion of Delta blues for a sound that blends the best of both. Yet, until the Steeldrivers’ eponymous 2008 debut, it seems as though no one thought to combine the two traditions. The results, as unique as they are, sound thoroughly natural and musically inevitable.
Now the Steeldrivers are back with a follow-up, and with Reckless, the band continues to make music on its own terms. In truth, no one sounds quite like The Steeldrivers, thanks in no small part to the gritty vocals of Chris Stapleton. It’s his impassioned howl that provides such a startling contrast to the standard bluegrass instrumentation–guitar, fiddle, bass and mandolin, all acoustic, of course.
Stapleton also co-wrote all of the songs on Reckless, 11 with the help of Mike Henderson, who moonlights as a blues rock guitar god when the Steeldrivers aren’t busy. Henderson here restricts his contributions to mandolin, resophonic guitar, and harmonica; the remainder of the band is comprised of fiddler Tammy Rogers and bassist Mike Fleming, with banjo duties ably handled by Richard Bailey.
While the instrumentation is relatively conventional for a bluegrass outing, Stapleton’s vocals give the music an unfamiliar edge and a level of intensity not usually found in a genre that stubbornly resists progress. True, the musical formula itself is pretty much perfect; the intricate interplay of acoustic instruments is timeless, and breathtaking instrumental prowess is virtually a given in contemporary bluegrass. Why mess with a good thing?
But as a genre so firmly rooted in tradition, most bluegrass vocalists strive for warmth and reassuring comfort, rather than the brawny, muscular swagger Stapleton brings to the table. The subject material isn’t atypical–the perils (and comforts) of alcohol, the pain of love lost, loneliness and longing for home–but it’s all here over the course of an even dozen tunes that touch on the familiar without resorting to cliché. Yet Stapleton’s raw and raucous approach is nothing short of revelatory, rendering the music enthralling rather than merely pleasant. Again, it’s a matter of contrast–Stapleton’s gloriously ragged vocals against the sweet strains of Rogers’ fiddle–with the results both compelling and mesmerizing.
The material is catchy yet never overly simple, with driving rhythms and genuinely thoughtful lyrics that avoid both the maudlin sentimentality so prevalent in bluegrass and the rather bland repetitiousness of so much contemporary blues. The results, while leaning primarily to the former, should please fans of both genres.
An excellent outing and a worthy follow-up, Reckless is highly recommended!