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The SteelDrivers

Bad for You – 2020 (Rounder)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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Throughout their existence of now more than a dozen years The SteelDrivers have been notable for their willingness to be a bluegrass band that ventures into a sort of musical "Twilight Zone," reaching across the void to draw a fervent following - "SteelHeads" - whose musical tastes and sensibilities often are more grounded in sounds ranging from hard-edged classic Delta blues to the iconic Southern rock of bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though each of the original members were musical virtuosos, the core of their sound revolved around the songwriting of a pair of Music Row writers, Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton, coupled with Stapleton's searing, bluesy vocals.

When Stapleton left after two albums to pursue a singularly successful solo career and Henderson departed as well, the band filled the lead singer slot with Gary Nichols and brought Brent Truitt on board to replace Henderson on mandolin and were rewarded with a Grammy in 2015. Shortly afterward, Nichols was gone too. For the remaining members (Tammy Rogers, fiddle; Richard Bailey, banjo; and Mike Fleming, bass, along with Truitt) the imperative was to find a singer who could carry on the band's distinctive vocal sound, and they found their man in Kentucky native Kelvin Damrel.

"Bad For You" finds the SteelDrivers still on track and in the "sweet spot" with a fondness for the darker side of life. "The Bartender" wonders which side of the line he's on and concludes "I don't pull the trigger, I just load the gun"; "Falling Man" finds himself in a free-floating purgatory; and "Glad I'm Gone" reflects that sometimes, breaking up isn't hard to do - in fact, it's the best thing.

Faced with not having Henderson and Stapleton to rely on to provide a continuing font of material for the band, Rogers reached into her own catalog and caught up with a lot of the folks she had collaborated with over the years to provide all the material for "Bad For You" (with the exception of the lone instrumental, "Mama Says No"). The result is up to the high standards the band has set for itself.