Two parts dark elegance and grit, the SteelDriver’s latest Muscle Shoals Recordings feels like a natural extension of their previous release, Hammer Down in a multitude of ways. You have Gary Nichols’s cataclysmic, jagged and uninhibited vocal and guitar delivery paired with equally as compellingly calamitous instrumentation courtesy of Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Richard Bailey (banjo), Brent Truitt (mandolin), and Mike Fleming (bass), and by extension, you have a studio full of acoustic instruments to hearken back kindly to their titular John Henry notions against fighting the production machine. Everything that makes the SteelDrivers, fundamentally, the SteelDrivers, is present and laid out on the table totally disrobed, with no frilly affectations or studio voodoo accentuating their raw mix.
The SteelDrivers are a Nashville-based bluegrass band whose members aren't afraid to highlight the blues and R&B influences in their music, so it makes sense that they'd want to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the city that produced some of the greatest soul music of the '60s and '70s, including major hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and Solomon Burke. Apparently, working under the belief that there is something in the water in Colbert County, the SteelDrivers booked time at NuttHouse Recording Studio in nearby Sheffield, Alabama, and The Muscle Shoals Recordings is the fruit of those sessions. If the title were meant to suggest to fans that this was the SteelDrivers' homage to classic soul music, well, that's not how the finished product plays.
Despite losing founding members Chris Stapleton (vocals) and Mike Henderson (multi-instrumentalist) in 2010 and 2011, respectively, the SteelDrivers maintained a creative attachment to their former band mates despite the addition of Gary Nichols on vocals and Brent Truitt on mandolin. While 2013's Hammer Down may have been Gary Nichols' debut with the band as lead vocalist, almost half the songs on that record were written with the assistance of Stapleton and Henderson. The Muscle Shoals Recordings is the album on which Nichols has taken control.
The SteelDriversThe Muscle Shoals Recordings(Rounder)Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars The Nashville based SteelDrivers have always infused their string band bluegrass with dabs of soul, blues, folk and country. So, when lead singer/guitarist Gary Nichols suggested they migrate to his Muscle Shoals hometown to record their fourth release, it was a logical next step in the band’s evolution. The result though sounds less like a leap into a different style than another solid SteelDrivers set that could have been recorded anywhere.
One thing’s for certain — this is not your granddad’s bluegrass anymore. Like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain and scores of other bands that can claim a certain populist appeal, The Steeldrivers cater to the festival-faring masses, boasting a sound that’s old in terms of tradition but young enough to garner alternative enthusiasm. The fact that these sessions were recorded in Muscle Shoals, a venerable landmark in itself, might imply it’s music of a stately stature, and yet, it’s hardly the subdued set-up that reasoning might suggest.