Over the years, many bands have survived losing or replacing pivotal members, including a well-loved lead singer. From Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, and Van Halen to Genesis, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, rock and roll is littered with groups that soldiered on and, in some cases, even prospered. In the world of country and bluegrass, it happens less often (Exile? Lonestar? Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys?) and most times even less successfully, which makes The SteelDrivers’ resilience all the more remarkable. After losing Chris Stapleton to what turned out to be (justified) mega-stardom (as well as co-founder Mike Henderson), The SteelDrivers recruited Muscle Shoals native Gary Nichols to fill those mighty lungs. Nichols then led the group through two albums and a Grammy win before skedaddling himself to go after that ever-elusive brass ring.
Nichols shared Stapleton’s fiery brand of soul shouting (although a slightly more subdued version), and that was to be expected; The SteelDrivers follow the path paved by the likes of New Grass Revival with the majestic wail of the great John Cowan, whose vocals were always more Robert Plant than Ralph Stanley. You’d think finding a third vocalist who could handle the spotlight with not only the pipes but an appreciation of the music’s deep roots would be difficult. It turns out, he was just a mouse-click away.
Like a story right out of the Journey and Judas Priest playbook (yep, more rock band comparisons, because that’s kind of the point), 25-year-old Kentuckian Kelvin Damrell was discovered on YouTube by the daughter of SteelDrivers co-founder Tammy Rogers. A couple of years later, Damrell is at the mic for The SteelDrivers’ fifth album, Bad for You.
But first, let’s pause for a first impression confession.
By the time the first chorus rolls by on the opening title track, I threw up my hands and was about to wash them of this group. The cynical critic in me had come to the conclusion that they’d just simply found a Stapleton soundalike on the internet (in fact, you can still find footage of Damrell with his former band, Soul Creek, solidly covering Stapleton’s “Midnight Train to Memphis” on the YT) to keep that gravy train running. But then I kept listening. Yes, Damrell can be a dead ringer for Stapleton, for sure, but stick around and you’ll actually hear some of the best, most fully realized SteelDrivers music to date.
The success of Bad for You is in large part due to the unfettered talent of Tammy Rogers. She takes the reins in the songwriting department, co-writing and crafting each track to fit around Damrell’s Kentucky-bred rasp while she wrings every ounce of emotion out of her ferocious fiddle. Coming from the Dead Reckoners (as did Mike Henderson), she knows her way around the studio, the stage, and the page. It all comes full circle on “12 O’Clock Blues” where she reunites to co-write with fellow Dead Reckoner Kieran Kane (and his duo partner Rayna Gellert).
Bad for You hits the barrooms philosophically on “The Bartender” and joyfully on “Glad I’m Gone.” It then leaves you speechless with the harrowing “Falling Man,” the ominous “Innocent Man” (co-written and with backing vocals from John Paul White), and offers strong lessons in love with both “Forgive” and “I Choose You.”
The instrumental “Mama Says No” allows each member (including Richard Bailey on banjo, Brent Truitt on mandolin, Mike Fleming on bass, and Damrell on guitar) to shine, while a welcome bluegrass/country waltz in “Lonely and Being Alone” gives Damrell the chance to reveal some strong Kentucky DNA in that voice. Throughout Bad for You, The SteelDrivers prove that adversity not only strengthens one’s resolve, but can also make for some high quality genre-bending music that’s good for us all.