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By The Steeldrivers

Review By Teri Ann McLean


Once every year, maybe as rare as every two years, I come across an album that doesn’t leave my player for a month or two. Sometimes the album is so addicting that it actually gets played several hours a day, back to back with no break in between…. the only discontinuity being that maybe I’ll play “just” my favorite songs a few more times before starting the entire album over.

This year the album that I absolutely cannot get enough of is the Steel Drivers self-titled debut album. At first listen, if you are of the “old-school” traditional bluegrass vein, you may respond, “This ain’t bluegrass!” or, as Bill Monroe might say, “This ain’t no part of nothin’!”… and traditional bluegrass, it ain’t. But its connections to traditional bluegrass cannot be missed nor understated.

These musicians are masters of their instruments, but there is a soulfulness that is not often found in bluegrass, where the chief complaint by non-bluegrass listeners is making serious subjects seem trite with the upbeat nature of the songs no matter the profundity of the topic. The Steel Drivers are anything but trite.

The power and soul behind Chris Stapleton’s voice is not something you come across every day in bluegrass music. There is a bluesy grittiness combined with the knowledge of how to dig deep into the recesses of the diaphragm to belt out lines that have the capability of making you shiver from your spine straight down to your knees. He obviously knows when to hit it hard and when to pull back, a proven master of vocal interpretation and phrasing.

Tammy Rogers’ harmonies provide a beautiful contrast to Stapleton’s grittiness. The songs range in style and influence from blues to rock to a hint of country while managing to keep bluegrass as the unifying theme. “East Kentucky Home,” “If You Can’t Be Good Be Gone,” and “Midnight Tears” are probably the songs that stick closest to the traditional bluegrass realm, while the first hit off the album, “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” has not only bluegrass influences in its mandolin chop and banjo style, but contains hints of blues and rock & roll.

Heaven Sent is a beautiful number that is more country by definition with just a touch of the blues. Another song with hit potential is “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” which has a raw blues feel to it as Stapleton denounces all the things he wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for love, including the fact he “never woulda loaded up a .44, put myself behind a jailhouse door.”
There isn’t a single track that is anything less than outstanding, and this cross-genre album has the potential to not only intrigue but hook fans that have yet to even give bluegrass a try.

This group has managed to come up with a contemporary bluegrass sound that remains true to roots music, keeping fans in both camps very, very happy.

~Teri Ann McLean, September 2008

Host of “Something Borrowed; Something Bluegrass”
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