A friend of ours likes to say, “Nobody likes them but the fans.” Who listens to bluegrass music and why do they come out to festivals and concerts, continuing to purchase records and listen to the music that in many ways seems antiquated, even quaint? Only people seeking to continue finding melody and stories in their music. People wishing to keep connecting to a musical tradition that clings to its roots while seeking new ground. Two sharply contrasting bands come to mind when thoughts of both endurance and recognition arise, although a number of others would serve.
Nothin’ Fancy, a Virginia-based band that assembled itself to enter a band contest more than 20 years ago, has held together, even thrived, with changes in only one position in the band over those two decades. The band was recently inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, and hosts a well-attended and much loved bluegrass festival in a state park in Virginia. I suspect that some people consider Nothin’ Fancy to be a bit on the cornball side of the ledger. After all, they emphasize humor along with their musicality. When they started, they were more noted as a Country Gentlemen cover band than for their original work, but over the years they have forged a distinctive sound appealing to a broad audience that appreciates humor mixed in with its music.
Lead singer and primary songwriter Mike Andes continues to perform with long hair hearkening back to a fashion style growing from their earliest days. Bassist Tony Shorter, whose elastic face manages to capture the screams of middle aged female fans with amazing consistency, vamps for his fans and then provides first-rate baritone singing and bass lines. Chris Sexton, on fiddle, brings classical violin as well as country fiddling to bear with respect for a range of musical traditions and an ear for the affecting musical line. His musical references cross hundreds of years of thoughtfully conceived melody with humor and a bit of the clown. Mitchell Davis on banjo is the band’s “bad boy,” always there with a quip that might be missed, or assuming the look of a mistreated child. The band has had several guitar players over the years since founding member Gary Faris retired, but young Caleb Cox seems firmly planted at the moment, having learned the repertoire and routines with remarkable speed and facility. All told, Nothin’ Fancy has managed to achieve a record of longevity that belies the amount of recognition they’ve received from IBMA, although they’ve consistently scored with SPBGMA awards. Nothin’ Fancy has been named “Entertaining Band of the Year” six times at the annual indoor festival with the overblown name of The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, as if the form were actually in need of preservation. What’s clear is that while serious critics and the “official” trade organization, IBMA, have consistently ignored this band, fans and time have not. Nothin’ Fancy has released 11 albums, recently signing with Mountain Fever records, which will provide them with added credibility.
The SteelDrivers have followed a significantly different career path than has Nothin’ Fancy, but the struggle for recognition within the bluegrass community, which seems to want to narrow its borders and restrict entry, has been a bit rocky, too. Founded in 2005, the SteelDrivers record for Rounder Records, perhaps the most prestigious and award-laden of any record company that releases bluegrass music. They have been nominated for two Grammy awards and were named IBMA Emerging Band of the Year in 2009, but since then they’ve had few, if any, nominations. The SteelDrivers, too, have an avid fan base willing to assemble to hear their blues-laden, thought-provoking music in the closing position at many bluegrass festivals across the country. Their music, especially since the change in personnel that added Gary Nichols’s lead vocals and fine flat-picking and Brent Truitt’s excellent mandolin work, has consistently had a rough-edged bluesy sound first concocted by country singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton’s work with the band, but now refined and clarified.
The SteelDrivers come straight out of Nashville’s deep well of session musicians whose work appears on hundreds of recorded projects, but whose names may not be well known. A look at the band bios on their website quickly lets the reader know that the members of this band are deeply experienced and have been widely exposed in bluegrass and country music. Truitt has served as performer and/or producer on over 250 albums. Tammy Rodgers has toured the world with noted country singers while teaching traditional and bluegrass fiddle at Nashville’s Belmont University. The self-effacing Richard Bailey is recognized as a banjo player’s banjo player, never forcing his banjo over the top, but always there and quietly prominent. Mike Fleming’s baritone voice and driving bass lines, as well as his work as band emcee, drive the band forward and keep its gears well oiled. Nichols, the newest member of the band, comes from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he was nurtured on soul and rock, playing as a kid with rising Americana singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, who produced much of their current album The Muscle Shoals Sessions. In that release, Nichols found his own voice with the SteelDrivers as a diverse singer and capable songwriter and helped them re-establish themselves. We watched crowds come to the merchandise table to buy out their recordings and saw their proudly worn T-shirts at several festivals this past summer. The SteelDrivers have successfully moved from a closing band who appear before avid, partying night hawks late on Saturday night into the coveted next-to-closing spot as fewer and fewer people fold up their seats when they appear. This is truly a bluegrass band with a special edge and appeal to their work.
Nothin’ Fancy and The SteelDrivers are sharply contrasting bands in style and appeal. The one is known for both its humor and music, while the other may be seen as a youth-oriented lifestyle band with a strong appeal to the party crowd but deserving of recognition for keeping the blues in bluegrass and for developing an ever wider fan base. In terms of recognition within organized bluegrass, however, nobody likes them but the fans.