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The SteelDrivers

The Muscle Shoals Recordings – 2015 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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The SteelDrivers are a dynamic, driving bluegrass band, a five-piece with a sound and an approach completely their own. "The Muscle Shoals Recordings" is their fourth album and second featuring expressive lead vocalist Gary Nichols and mandolinist Brent Truitt alongside group founders Tammy Rodgers (fiddle), Richard Bailey (five-string banjo), and Mike Fleming (bass).

Given Nichols' roots in the Alabama community, it is hardly a surprise that The SteelDrivers chose to record at Muscle Shoals' NuttHouse studio. Nichols must be comfortable within these environs as his vocals for the previous SteelDrivers album "Hammer Down" were also laid out there. No matter the reason, it works as it is Nichols' voice that is the most startling aspect of the current SteelDrivers sound.

This time out, there seems to be less screaming of the lyrics, less forcing things to places it needn't go. Nichols has established himself in the group, and the group has embraced his uniqueness: The SteelDrivers have established soulgrass as their own little niche.

The lead track, the fateful "Long Way Down," is well-within The SteelDrivers familiar wheelhouse, but it is elevated not only by Nichols' murderous, soul-bleeding vocalizing, but by the intensity of the instrumental support he receives: acoustic guitar sets the tone while pulsing bass notes replace that which has faded from the victim, banjo rolls ratchet up the tension and fiddling provides color to the dark atmosphere, while mando chops hint at the violence witnessed. It is a truly outstanding performance.

"Ashes of Yesterday" provides evidence that The SteelDrivers are no one-trick pony; yes, they like their murder and drinkin' songs, but they can be pensive, too. Featuring slide guitar from Jason Isbell, who also appears on the brilliant "Brother John," this waltz allows the group to explore their more sensitive sides. "Here She Goes" is similarly effective.

The closing track may be The SteelDrivers' finest moment yet. Detailing the Civil War's Battle of Stones River while embracing the futility of all war, "River Runs Red" calls for Nichols to pull back a fair bit, allowing his voice to convey the intensity of emotion with restraint.

Featuring 11 new songs, including "Drinkin' Alone" from former SteelDriver Chris Stapleton and Jay Knowles, "The Muscle Shoals Recordings" continues the band's string of superior bluegrass recordings. Constantly evolving around a well-established core sound, this group demonstrates that there is sufficient room within bluegrass confines to do things a little bit differently.