By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, May 3, 2013
Gifted singer--songwriters Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson may have left the SteelDrivers, the band they founded, but the remarkable bluegrass group has retained its strong sense of identity. On “Hammer Down,” the quintet’s first album with its new lineup, the SteelDrivers stand out as one bluegrass group that embraces the genre’s rough--and--tumble, working--class roots. The songs about alcohol, betrayal and violence feature vocals and solos raw enough to make it all credible.
Stapleton’s Howlin’ Wolf--like bass voice has been replaced by Gary Nichols’s Ronnie Van Zant--like baritone. When Nichols sings about his lover’s ghost rising from a “Shallow Grave,” he tells the story in the verses but shares his terror in the chorus, with fiddler Tammy Rogers’s soprano joining him for an eerie duet. Something similar happens throughout the album, and every time Nichols’s and Rogers’s voices snap together, the music seems to shift into a higher gear.
Brent Truitt has replaced Henderson on mandolin, and his brittle melodies and jittery rhythms further raise the anxiety level in songs about a cuckolded husband and a motherless child turned arsonist. Rogers, banjoist Richard Bailey and bassist Mike Fleming are still around from the original lineup, and Stapleton and/or Henderson wrote four of the 10 tracks.
This isn’t bluegrass for a church or schoolhouse. This is bluegrass for a blue--collar bar, where troubles are solved by drinking, fighting or, as the album’s honky--tonk stomper puts it, “Wearin’ a Hole” in the barroom dance floor.