While you wouldn't know it from reading their press, there are many bluegrass bands with as good a back-story as The SteelDrivers, and as advanced songwriting and musicianship prowess, while having deeper professional bluegrass roots and longer track records with more significant lineup alterations over a relatively brief period of time.
Not to begrudge The SteelDrivers notice they receive, sometimes it feels a bit over the top. But darn it, they know how to produce a mighty inspiring bluegrass album.
Appealing as much to the Americana fold as to consumers inhabiting the bluegrass niche, The SteelDrivers' third album is every bit as strong if less surprising than the blindside that was their 2007 debut. Yes, Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson have left the fold, and especially Stapleton's unique singing is missed. This changing of the guard has allowed Tammy Rogers to lay claim to a more defined position harmonizing with new singer, Gary Nichols. That his country-funk vocals are an amiable companion to memories of Stapleton certainly helps; that he is seemingly Stapleton's songwriting equal is all the more bonus.
Henderson and Stapleton both remain a presence. The pair have 4 songwriting credits among the 10 songs, each a corker. Nichols shares songwriting on another five - the simmering I'll Be There i> stands out - while Rogers has a pair, including with Leslie Satcher on the frivolous, spitfire of trouble that is Hell On Wheels. Every modern Americana album needs a John Paul White co-write, and "Hammer Down" doubles that.
Richard Bailey has long been a bluegrass 'go-to' five-string master, and hearing him as an essential, organic component within a band structure is an ongoing pleasure. Mike Fleming remains a rock on the bass - the soul he evokes within Lonesome Goodbye is but one indicator of his contribution to The SteelDrivers, while the newest 'Driver, veteran mandolinist Brent Truitt slides effortlessly into the mix. As a fiddler, Rogers can't be touched.
A few songs of murder, obsession, and cheatin', a bit of sentimentality, some salvation and regret - maybe a little less brown liquor- and you have your standard album from The SteelDrivers. And by standard, read consistently impressive.
Hammer down, indeed.