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This disc is just about as close to flawless as today's mainstream bluegrass gets.

Music Review: The Steeldrivers – Hammer Down

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.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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