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The SteelDrivers put blue in bluegrass

By John Lupton, January 2008

Though a new band on the scene, one seemingly intent on bringing a new dimension to the "blue" in bluegrass and with a self-titled debut out in January on Rounder, the Nashville-based SteelDrivers feature an impressive collective resume of talents and accomplishments, both on their own and as side players to the musical elites of both coasts and Music City.

The names of all five - Mike Henderson (mandolin), Chris Stapleton (guitar, lead vocals), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, vocals), Richard Bailey (banjo) and Mike Fleming (bass, vocals) - pepper the liner notes of countless studio projects over the years, and as Henderson acknowledges, it's not as though they'd all been sitting around killing time.

The SteelDrivers, he says, grew out of his songwriting partnership with Stapleton and his yearning to get back into bluegrass.

"Chris and I, we'd been writing about five years, and we were building up quite a catalog of things, and we would write them with a couple of acoustic guitars. Every now and then, I'd pull the mandolin out, but we were trying to write for the market here, the country music market - we're both staff songwriters at a publishing company. I got to thinking that I wanted to get back into playing some bluegrass. It was something I was wanting to do, and I asked Chris if he'd be interested in doing it, and he said yes. So, I called the other three, and they all said yes."

"We got together one time, and it was obvious after the first rehearsal that it was gonna work. The three of them sang well together right from the get-go. We recorded at the rehearsal, and even after the first one, I'd made everyone a CD of it to take home. Over the next couple of days, the phone calls started coming in. Everybody's one-at-a-time going, 'you know, this sounds really good.' So, I think that had a lot to do with it. We recognized right off the bat that we had something cool."

Now 54, Henderson is a Missouri native whose musical roots go back to an era when there weren't nearly as many distractions to compete with important things like baseball. His own career in music would grow out of a backdrop of the music of the late '50s and early '60s, particularly the music his mother would listen to.

"She was crazy about music, particularly the blues, and used to play a lot of B. B. King and John Lee Hooker, stuff like that. So, I heard a lot of that as a kid growing up, and at that time...the Top 40 was based on sales and jukebox plays, so your Top 40 had everybody on it. It had The Beatles, and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong - just whatever people liked."

"As a little kid with my transistor radio, I heard all kinds of stuff all the time. Every kid in my neighborhood had one of those radios, and when we got ready to play baseball, we'd set 'em all to the same station and put 'em all around the ball yard so we could hear 'em. I just grew up in a time when there wasn't much on TV. Nobody had air conditioning, so we were constantly outdoors, and we always had our little radios going. So, I just grew up hearing a lot of music. About the only time we didn't have our radios on was when we were in school."

Though renowned over the last two decades for his blues guitar work, Henderson relates that bluegrass was in fact his entry into professional music.

"I got into bluegrass about 1971 or 72. I just started hearing it, and it really affected me in a good way, I mean, I really liked it, and I fell in love with the sound of the mandolin and started wanting to learn to play the mandolin, and it seemed that the most mandolin playing you could buy (on record) was bluegrass. I played bluegrass until about 1980, professionally, and at that time, it was really, really hard to make a living at it."

(Henderson also made a living as a songwriter with Patty Loveless, Randy Travis and Neal McCoy cutting his songs. He did a lot of session work as well for the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Kelly Willis and Hank Williams Jr. He released "Country Music Made Me Do It" in 1994 on RCA and put out "Edge of Night" in 1996 on the Dead Reckoning label, which he started with Kieran Kane Kevin Welch, Harry Stinson and Rogers.)

"So, I got into it and then kind of got out of it, and I didn't play much for the last, you know, almost 20 years. I would get my mandolin out every now and then and play the same four or five songs and put it back away. But I wasn't really keeping up with it, and since the SteelDrivers started, I've really made an effort to have a good serious routine about practicing and getting back to where I used to be."

The centerpiece of the band's sound is Stapleton's rough-hewn, bluesy voice, which has invited comparisons to talents as widely varied as Ray Charles, Duane Allman and Joe Cocker, yet is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon that is, Henderson says, simply an expression of who Stapleton is and where he came from.

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