Of all musical genres, bluegrass and its cousin the Delta blues are the most bound by form and tradition. This is perhaps inevitable: they are acoustic musical forms, defined as much by their instrumentation and musical structure as by their repertory.
But bluegrass in particular has gone through sometimes-wrenching changes over the years since Bill Monroe developed the style. The "true vine" bluegrass groups of the 1940s and 50s — Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Flatt and Scruggs — laid down the bedrock of what bluegrass music was; they established the form and the character. But the advent of rock and roll nearly killed bluegrass as a popular art-form as the larger audience moved on, and bluegrass musicians found themselves scrambling to stay employed. The "true vine" groups kept mainly to the old style and simply played smaller venues for less money, hoping for better days; but younger musicians began to experiment with the form and instrumentation while trying to stay true to the style that Bill Monroe had pioneered.
The 1960s saw the first wave of experimentation as bluegrassers strove to survive the twin body-blows of rock music and the collapse of the folk music revival. Some, like the Osborne Brothers, introduced drums and electrified instruments into the mix. Others like the Seldom Scene began to adapt rock and pop songs to the bluegrass style. This experimentation often caused friction in the bluegrass audience and among the musicians themselves — Ralph Stanley not only would not allow drums or electrified instruments into his band, but wouldn't even consider the addition of a Dobro. (A conviction he holds to even to the present day.)
In the years since, bluegrass has spawned several subgenres: "newgrass", "spacegrass", David Grisman's "dawg music". Musicians like Tony Rice have even melded a lot of jazz-oriented concepts into their playing. Alison Krauss and Union Station, beginning in the late 1980's, brought a smoother and more mainstream-country sound back into bluegrass music.
The biggest shock to the bluegrass system was the 2000 release of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Even though the album was not a bluegrass release, it brought all styles of "roots music", including old-time and bluegrass, back into the public light after a 30-year-long eclipse. It reinvigorated the bluegrass world and brought a huge influx of new talent as young people began to learn and play the old music. But it also brought in a spirit of experimentation that alarmed some of the purists. Several of the newcomers have once again roiled the waters: is it bluegrass or isn't it?
Which brings us to a band called The SteelDrivers, and their self-titled 2008 release.
Composed of crack session and independent musicians from Nashville, The SteelDrivers have re-ignitied the old argument as to what is and isn't bluegrass music. Going by the instruments, it seems easy enough: Chris Stapleton on guitar and lead vocals; Tammy Rogers on fiddle and harmony vocals; Richard Bailey on banjo; Mike Henderson on mandolin; and Mike Fleming on hound-dog bass. True-vine bluegrass purists would find nothing amiss here – this is as "bluegrass" a band as ever existed, going simply by the instruments they play.
But when Chris Stapleton launches into the album's first track, "Blue Side of the Mountain", we are immediately aware that "true-vine bluegrass" this is not. Stapleton has the cigarette-and-whiskey voice of a blues shouter from over in Memphis, not the high mountain tenor of a Monroe or a Stanley. Stapleton's voice comes out of the lowlands, the deltas and the swamps of the South, not the mountains of Appalachia.
But the lyrics he's singing — all originals written by Henderson and Stapleton — are pure bluegrass: songs of sadness and loss, of loneliness, of being driven to the wrong side of the law by bad love. If you like love songs, your only recourse is "If It Hadn't Been For Love": "Never would have loaded up a .44/Put myself behind a jailhouse door/If it hadn't been/If it hadn't been for love".
Some tunes, like "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey", are more honkytonk than bluegrass-festival; but others, like "If You Can't Be Good, Be Gone", wouldn't sound out of place on a Flatt & Scruggs record. "Midnight Train to Memphis" is pure country blues of the kind Hank Williams used to write.
One standout song from the album, "Sticks That Made Thunder", is harder to categorize, but only because it harkens back to the old-timey mountain songs that predated bluegrass. It has a sorrowful, dirgelike quality — carried by Rogers' mournful fiddle — that is perfectly lovely.
I don't know what Monroe or Ralph Stanley would make of the record, in truth, but bluegrass fans have largely taken The SteelDrivers to their hearts. The Nashville Music Awards gave "Bluegrass Album of the Year" honors to the album, and the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) named The SteelDrivers as "emerging artist of the year".
But more importantly, the band seems to have managed to put their sound over with the fans, and this indicates that bluegrass has managed to escape the trap of being a niche market that is hostile to innovation. It bodes well for the acceptance of new groups into the bluegrass culture while still preserving the ineffable drive and rhythm that makes bluegrass what it is. Other bands like The Infamous Stringdusters, Nickel Creek, and Crooked Still (not to mention Old Crow Medicine Show) have ventured away from the "true vine" bluegrass sound, but The SteelDrivers seem to have actually expanded the boundaries of what is still considered "real bluegrass" — no mean feat.
The SteelDrivers have provided a sound that is not really a fusion of Delta blues into bluegrass so much as an illustration — mainly from Stapleton's vocals — that the influence has always been there. Had a different, high-tenor done the vocals, this probably would have been a good but middle-of-the-road bluegrass record. With Stapleton doing the singing, it has a burning vitality that makes it really stand out.Powered by Sidelines