With their follow-up disc "Reckless" out (both on Rounder) and on the charts the band's fiddler, Tammy Rogers, says their success turned out to be something of an obstacle.
"('Reckless') actually took a long time to make, and I think there were a number of reasons for that. 2009 was a very, very busy year for us, touring-wise. We just did some incredible shows." She pauses a moment and rattles off a list that includes Telluride as well as both coasts - "All over the place. So that made 'sitting and recording time' rather difficult, and I think we were all pretty determined to go beyond the first album. I mean, I know for myself, I wasn't interested, creatively, in rehashing the first album and repeating what we'd done. It was very important for me, creatively, to take it a step further."
Also, she notes, all five of them (in addition to Rogers, Chris Stapleton, lead vocals and guitar; Mike Henderson, mandolin; Richard Bailey, banjo; and Mike Fleming, bass) have plenty of musical commitments to juggle outside the band, not to mention families to pay attention to.
"It took several months before we were able to get back in the studio – again, the touring schedule, and everybody else's schedule, family commitments, this that and the other, and it wasn't really until the second round of sessions that I finally went, 'okay, I think we've really got something here.' So yeah, that record took a while to make."
The new album turned out to be Stapleton's swan song with the band. Needing to spend less time on the road and more with his family, as well as his bread-and-butter songwriting partnership with Henderson (which Rogers notes was the band's genesis), he departed shortly after the record was "in the can."
"Unfortunately by the time it was completed, Chris had decided he needed to stick around town a little bit more, things like that, so it was unfortunate that we knew he wasn't going to be out touring with us for (this) album. So, the timing couldn't have been worse," she laughs, "but you know, it just is what it is. I'm thankful that Gary (Nichols) has been such a wonderful addition. He's such a professional, and he's so great with people…he couldn't have made it an easier transition, that's for sure."
A veteran of the Muscle Shoals, Ala. music scene ("kind of a melting pot of a lot of musical styles," Rogers says), Nichols came in for an audition and impressed them with a style that was much in the same mold as Stapleton, yet still all his own. Ironically, Rogers says, her initial thought was to go in an entirely new direction.
"I was very adamant, at the time, of trying to find something totally different. I really didn't want to put somebody through the obvious (comparisons)…Chris is just such an amazing writer, vocalist, musician, you know, all that rolled into one. I just thought it would be a real mistake to try to find someone who had that quality, and Gary just completely changed my mind about it…he does have that raspy, R&B kind of sound naturally. You listen to him do his songs, and he's got that sound. So, I was certainly thinking that was not the way that we should go, but he completely changed my mind."
"[Bluegrass] was new to him," she continues, "He's since told us he'd been around some bluegrass, but he's never really played it before. Definitely, there's a learning curve for him, more to do with, I'd say, framework with his guitar because I think he's primarily been an electric guitar-slinger up to that point. So, I think, kind of finding a groove with the acoustic, trying to fit in in that respect…but man alive, he's just done an amazing job…he's already started writing songs, and he and I have written something together, and I know he's been writing with Henderson, you know, start working up material that people don't necessarily associate so much with Chris, so he'll get his own due respect for his great talent as well."
Rogers has a pretty substantial resume herself, having toured with Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood and most recently Reba McEntire, as well as penning tunes for herself and others (such as Terri Clark's A Little Gasoline). She was also, along with Henderson, one of the founders of the Dead Reckoning label, resulting in three solo albums, and she's savoring the opportunity to write SteelDrivers material.
"The band grew out of the songwriting partnership of Mike and Chris, and there was such a wealth of material there, just right off the bat – not to sound lazy or anything – but we just always had so many great songs to sing that were already written before the band even got together to draw from, that we had enough material, that it wasn't really needed at that point for me to bring my stuff to the table. I mean, Chris and I did do some co-writing together, but it seemed like the stuff we wound up coming up with, it wasn't ultimately stuff that the band would do, it was more kind of country stuff that was a little more ‘pitchable' in that sense. So that just kind of didn't come together, but I'm certainly hoping to write some stuff with Gary…and Mike (Henderson) or whomever that we can do and incorporate into the band's sets."