Steeldrivers – Irons in the Fire
Can a blueblood go bluegrass? Mike Henderson, the veteran Nashville guitarist/songwriter/bandleader who has explained his style as half Muddy Waters and half Bill Monroe, is tilting toward the latter and making the transition with aplomb.
For two decades, Henderson has played house-rocking, countrified blues at the Bluebird Cafe under one moniker or another, the most prominent one being the Bluebloods through the 1990s. Their regular Monday night shows there are still on the short list of things-not-to-be-missed in Music City. In the meantime, Henderson also became a first-call guitarist, a recording artist, and the writer of a stack of respected, widely recorded songs.
A couple of years ago, Henderson pulled together a new band for a regular gig at the Station Inn, the joint that is to Nashville bluegrass what the Bluebird is to the city’s songwriters. Henderson had swapped his electric guitar and slide for a mandolin and a heavy pick. The new quintet, dubbed the SteelDrivers, featured a phenomenal young singer as well as enviable instrumental talent drawn from Henderson’s decades of musical relationships.
Bassist Mike Fleming, who has played with Joy Lynn White and David Olney among others, had known Henderson since college in Missouri. Richard Bailey, the group’s versatile banjo player, is a Grammy-nominated veteran of the Cluster Pluckers and sessions with a wild range of artists, Bill Monroe and Chet Atkins among them. Tammy Rogers, who grew up on the bluegrass circuit in a family band out of Texas, shares a rich musical history with Henderson by way of their Dead Reckoning record label and musical collective. She plays fiddle and sings most of the high parts.
But what truly sets the SteelDrivers apart sonically is the unorthodox, soul-saturated vocal presence of Chris Stapleton, a long-haired, big-bearded man with horn-rimmed glasses and moon-like cheeks. Stapleton grew up near Paintsville, Kentucky, “two hours from anywhere that would be considered civilization,” he says. Despite his geographic pedigree, he only dabbled in bluegrass before the SteelDrivers came about.
“My dad listened to a lot of outlaw country and old R&B stuff — Otis Redding and people of that nature,” Stapleton says. Which turns out to give a pretty good idea of what Stapleton’s singing resembles today — a bit like Waylon Jennings under the influence of Stax. It’s not very high and only quasi-lonesome, but it’s certainly pleading and emotive, and it has an arresting affect anchoring a bluegrass band.
“I grew up singing with my brother in church. I wound up getting into bluegrass when I was about 20 and getting out of it when I was about 21,” Stapleton says, admitting he’s no a master of the classic bluegrass repertoire or the rhythm guitar. “I wound up driving a truck and doing various odd things until I wound up here [in Nashville] writing songs.”
When he made that move in 2001, he already had a publishing deal and a reputation on Music Row as a writer and vocalist. Henderson decided Chris was a “singing son of a bitch” when his publisher pulled Stapleton in to sing one of Henderson’s demos. About the same time, Stapleton’s song-plugger, a onetime waitress at the Bluebird, got it in her head that Stapleton and Henderson ought to write together and made an introduction.
She was on to something. Their first co-write, “Higher Than The Wall”, got picked up by Patty Loveless. Another early composition, “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, landed on a Gary Allan album. One day, five years into this profitable relationship, Henderson asked somewhat out of the blue if Stapleton would be interested in pulling some people together to play bluegrass.
“Usually we kind of write things as though we were going to perform them acoustically,” said Henderson during an all-band interview in the green room before a Station Inn show. “And then when we go in the studio, we bring in drums and electric instruments and try to get them to where they’ll squeeze into today’s market. But I just thought here’s all these songs that would be great for a five-piece bluegrass band to play.”
Initially it was casual. “I kind of envisioned it at first where maybe we could get a weekly gig every Sunday night or something,” Henderson says. “But after a few rehearsals it became pretty evident to everybody that there was more here than just it being a social club.”
“It was pretty immediate,” agrees Tammy Rogers about the musical and personal chemistry of the group. After a few rehearsals, they booked their first gigs through a friend at the VFW hall in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, largely so they could play for an audience off the radar of curious industry colleagues. Then “word got out pretty quick,” Rogers says, and music folk began turning up. “They thought it was real campy, and it was.”
The camp phase ended once the band moved to the Station Inn and laid it all out before the bluegrass cognoscenti: the original songs and Stapleton’s potentially controversial voice. But it all went over, both at the country’s most famous bluegrass club and at a variety of festivals over the past two seasons.
“I think they’re getting it in a big way,” says Rogers of the sometimes prickly bluegrass audience. “It’s amazing,” Stapleton chimes in. “Especially just recently Mike’s been bringing his National out on a couple of songs, and the first time was down in Georgia at a pretty backwoods festival, but they really liked it. I thought they’d either like it or they’d start throwing stuff.”
Bailey adds, “there’s been a lot of traditional [minded] folks that I know who really like this band. It’s kind of surprising.” Their peers have been enthusing as well; the SteelDrivers have been lauded in print by the likes of Roland White, Vince Gill and Buddy Miller.
All of which was enough to attract the interest of at least a couple of labels, including bluegrass tastemaker Rounder Records, which put them in the studio with heavyweight acoustic producer Luke Wooten. Last fall, when the SteelDrivers previewed the songs from their self-titled album debut album (released January 15 by Rounder) on the main stage at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fan Fest in Nashville, they wowed the initiated and won over the skeptical. “We got a standing O at one o’clock in the afternoon,” says Fleming. “That was some validation that they like what we’re doing.”
The SteelDrivers might well have called themselves Irons In The Fire, because few working bands have so many members with so many other musical pursuits. But in some ways, the steady diet of session work, songwriting and sideman gigs became the motivation for the SteelDrivers to do something self-contained and original.
“It’s hard to stay inspired, particularly if you’re a hired gun, always walking in to play somebody else’s music the way they hear it,” says Rogers. “And if you’re a session player, that’s your job. They might say show me what you would do and then they start whittling away at it. But you get your check and down the road you go. So before all this came about, I was at point where I was just not really inspired. I was making money. And this kind of got me excited about music again.”
Henderson expresses a similar sentiment. “With all due respect to modern commercial country music, I think a lot of people [who] wish they could play real county music are moving toward bluegrass and acoustic, because it seems to be the only place that you’re allowed to do it anymore,” he observes. “And I had a background in it [bluegrass] when I was a lot younger, and I kind of got away from it because it was so hard to make a living.
“But now that is not such a big issue. None of us have to depend on this band for our livelihood. So for me it was just returning to something that I’ve always loved and always missed.”
Stapleton’s writing career is on a tear; he recently landed a country single for Kenny Chesney that spent five weeks at #1. But Rogers says they’ve carefully woven the SteelDrivers’ performance and touring schedules around existing commitments. “I did last summer with Reba [McEntire],” she note. “Richard’s gone out and done gigs with [Jim] Lauderdale and other people. Everybody’s been really understanding. We’ll book when we can. So it’s been a real respectful collaborative situation of everybody’s time. But it’s so much damn fun.”
Lots of bands are congenial, but few have a repertoire of original material so road-ready so fast, or so unique in perspective and attack. Henderson & Stapleton may not roll off the tongue like Lerner & Loewe, but there is a special fluidity to the way they conspire on songs about the country music conventions of love, prison and death — as well as some more creative terrain.
There was, for example, the autumn day that Chris and Mike met up to write with trees on their mind. The resulting song, “Sticks That Made Thunder”, imagines the inner life of an ancient tree recalling a Civil War battle it had witnessed. It’s a mesmerizing marriage of imagery, lyric and a lush melody that gets stuck in the head after one pass.
From the more familiar terrain of the dimly lit honky-tonk comes the band’s take on “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, which swings like a Jimmy Martin number and sports a quasi-yodeling vocal hook. Then there’s the unmitigated bluegrass of “East Kentucky Home”, a brisk rambler’s lament, and “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone”, which Bailey suggests would have been a natural for Lester Flatt.
Unsurprisingly, a good bit of the band’s material draws deeply from the writers’ background in and love for the blues, leaving room for imaginative leaps of arrangement. Fleming recalls there was a bit of doubt whether “Midnight Train To Memphis” would translate from R&B growler to SteelDrivers bluegrass.
“It’s so rough-and-tumble sounding,” he says, “but Richard just took it upon himself to make it work on the banjo.” The song, a Johnny Cash-like portrait of a guy hearing a tormenting train from a prison cell, pairs nicely with the equally unorthodox “If It Hadn’t Been For Love”, a murder tale leavened by a soaring chorus.
Bluegrass vocals have taken a long and not entirely satisfying journey from the parched, holy and magnificently microtonal harmonies of the Monroe/Martin era to the polished contemporary sound embodied by bands such as IIIrd Tyme Out. And there are a lot of young bluegrass bands with singers who can hit the notes but just don’t have much personality. The genre could use more surprising voices, and the SteelDrivers bring it, not only because of Stapleton’s honeyed and rangy rasp, but because Rogers is usually there matching him breath-for-breath with nuanced phrasing. Fleming sings a nice baritone, and the vocal trio working a single microphone helps to ground them in bluegrass tradition.
Asked about goals, the only thing that comes to mind beyond having major fun and playing original music on their own terms and for its own sake is to get the SteelDrivers sound out in front of audiences beyond the bluegrass faithful. “We want to play in front of people in different genres of music, and hopefully their people will like what we do too,” says Fleming.
“And a really nice bus,” says Henderson in the rat-a-tat style of humor that flows among these five. As onstage, Rogers doesn’t miss a beat: “And a whiskey endorsement.”