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.