When Chris Stapleton 'won' the CMA Awards broadcast last week, my Country Standard Time editor sent me a note suggesting that I may want to consider striking while the iron was warmish, that is-write something about Stapleton's amazing evening.
As the week revealed itself, and Stapleton sold more records than anyone else, more downloads and discs than he ever likely believed he would, there was even more reason to write about the success he was experiencing, accomplishment that flew in the face of an industry that had up to that point, largely, ignored him from an airplay perspective.
Does anyone recall the industry honcho who got bent out of shape a decade ago when Loretta Lynn (from the same Kentucky hometown as Stapleton, by the way- coincidence?) won a Grammy for Country Album of the Year? I more than half expected similar to occur in the light of Stapleton's three CMA awards the other night, but-far as I've heard-that hasn't happened.
What has occurred is that one heck of a country singer sold a boatload of albums to a lot of folks who may have been disappointed that Justin Timberlake was nowhere to be found. Still, hopefully they immersed themselves in one of the best country albums to be released in 2015.
Anyway, since I seldom have sense to listen to my editor, and I do actually work a demanding day job, I'm only getting around to writing about Chris Stapleton more than a week down the line. And, as I am rather contrary to start with, I thought it best that I go back eight or so years ago and re-examine The SteelDrivers' debut, self-titled Rounder album. This was the record that brought Chris Stapleton's name to the fore, at least for me.
Outside an Earl Brothers disc, "The SteelDrivers" is one of the few bluegrass albums released in 2008 that I recall having listened to this past year. Hearing it again this morning, I am once more impressed by the lively intensity the album possesses. Truly, The SteelDrivers, as captured on songs as powerful as "Blue Side of the Mountain" and "Hear the Willow Cry," reveal an approach to bluegrass that was (and remains) unique.
At the time of its release in early 2008, The SteelDrivers received a fair amount of attention as the latest group to shake up the rather staid bluegrass industry. What was surprising about this band was that most of the members were not recognized for their bluegrass roots. While fiddler and vocalist Tammy Rogers long ago played in Dusty Miller, she and mandolinist Mike Henderson were far better known for their session work as well as their long-standing association with the Dead Reckoners collective which included Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch; I've been listening to "Tammy Rogers" regularly for almost twenty years.
Similarly, vocalist Chris Stapleton, possessor of the growliest, dirtiest bluegrass voice some of us had ever heard, was most obviously at home with the blues and country. Amongst this bunch, only banjoist Richard Bailey was commonly regarded (until then) as a bluegrasser, although all had played the music in their past. As with Stapleton, I had never heard of bassist Mike Fleming before receiving the promo copy of the disc.
The bluegrass of The SteelDrivers was not pretty. No, this eleven-track album was filled with the ugly stepchildren of the emotionally hardcore bluegrass of Bill Monroe circa 1946, in spirit if not performance. Consider those original Monroe cuts laid down in Chicago in the autumn of '46- "Toy Heart," "Mother's Only Sleeping," "Wicked Path of Sin," and "Will You Be Loving Another Man." The subject matter is almost exclusively dark and lonesome, even on sacred material. This perspective placed The SteelDrivers- for all of their blues and non-traditional influences and approaches- firmly in the pocket of Monroe's initial vision.
Contrast this with the popular, pretty bluegrass releases of the day from Dailey & Vincent and Rhonda Vincent- glossy, lifeless replicas of Monroe's music, lacking the grit and passion found on the eponymous SteelDrivers' album.
On this riveting release, The SteelDrivers unleashed a torrent of memorable songs. There were girls left behind in Kentucky, and wind blowing through pine trees while the wood smoke rose, but the protagonists weren't hanging onto fading remembrances. They were drinking dark whiskey, listening to the sound of the willows and shedding some midnight tears after issuing ultimatums such as, "If you can't be good, be gone." Not much forgiveness within these songs, almost all written by Stapleton and Henderson.
In retrospect, likely too much attention was paid to the unusual vocal qualities Stapleton brought to the release. Listening to "The SteelDrivers" now, as well as to the follow-up "Reckless," one is cognizant that there was much more to the group than Stapleton's hard-hewn vocals. As incredible, and as unexpected, as his vocal delivery was, the entire group brought a different, welcome perspective to bluegrass.
Rogers' fiddling was incredible, of course-when she lit it up on the album's opening track "Blue Side of the Mountain," one was hearing an aggressive approach to bluegrass fiddling. Bailey-a sideman extraordinaire within bluegrass circles I had encountered a couple years previously playing with Dale Ann Bradley-rooted the group in tradition, while Fleming's voice-paired with Rogers'-provided a nuanced harmony foundation that kept things solidly within the spectrum of bluegrass. Having only known Henderson as a bluesy guitarist, I was suitably impressed hearing his mandolin playing on this album-give "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey" a listen.
Outside "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey" and "If It Hadn't Been For Love" (later recorded by Adele) I can't recall which (if any) tracks received attention back in 2008, but I know the one that got me was "Sticks That Made Thunder;" Rogers' mournful fiddling here is absolutely atmospheric, creating vivid color to the destruction Stapleton sings. The second verse is one of the album's most artfully constructed:
"Some wear the color of the sky in the winter/
Some, were as blue as the night/
They came like a storm with the light of the morn/
And they fell through the whole day and night."
It is an epic Civil War song, one that should be more widely known.
The SteelDrivers recorded only two albums with their original lineup. Stapleton left the group following the release of "Reckless." Henderson headed off shortly after.
The group hardly missed a beat, pulling in Gary Nichols to provide vocal consistency and Brent Truitt to further define the group's sound. I never had the chance to see the original band live, but when they appeared at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival after Stapleton's departure, the group was no weaker for his absence. It has been widely reported in various places that Stapleton was never really a bluegrass singer, and I suppose there may be truth in that; perhaps his heart was always in country music performance and songwriting. That doesn't diminish the obvious strength he brought to "The SteelDrivers."
The SteelDrivers have recorded three albums since that initial one which, rightly or wrongly, remains the album I return to most frequently. Musically, "Reckless" may be more diverse and have even more strong songs ("Angel of the Night," for one,) "Hammer Down" is certainly no weak sister, and the most recent "The Muscle Shoals Recordings" is even more accomplished and assured, but "The SteelDrivers" is where I first heard the gut-churning voice of Christ Stapleton, and therefore remains a favorite. No matter how you come to listen to The SteelDrivers, one is better for the experience. Each of their four albums are worthy of attention, with and without the presence of Chris Stapleton, reigning CMA Male Vocalist of the Year.