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".