PopMatters Editor Sarah Zupko couldn’t have been any more to the point when she wrote last year that, “As far as I’m concerned, Nashville’s SteelDrivers are the finest neo-bluegrass group on the planet right now.” So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Americana act has kept its winning streak going with its third album Hammer Down, except when you consider that two of the group’s founding members and songwriters—Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson—departed from the band over the past few years. But it’s evident on Hammer Down that the quintet of Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass), Gary Nichols (guitar), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), and Brent Truitt (mandolin) haven’t skipped a beat, creating a set of virtuosic “bluesgrass” songs that take classic Americana instrumentation and give it an intense, soulful inflection all the SteelDrivers’ own. PopMatters caught up with bassist Mike Fleming to find out where the SteelDrivers fit into the contemporary Americana scene and what went into the making of Hammer Down, which comes out via Rounder on February 5.
PopMatters: We’re entering Grammys season right now. So after garnering Grammy nominations for work on your first two albums, how do you top that with your latest?
Mike Fleming: We really do not go into the studio with accolades on our minds. Of course, you hope for the best after the fact. But that part is out of our hands. All we can do if make the best record we can.
PopMatters: The SteelDrivers have had some major lineup changes in the past few years, with two important and founding members (Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton) leaving the band. How did their departures impact the band’s sound? Likewise, what has vocalist Gary Nichols added to the group’s sound?
Mike Fleming: From the very beginning in the SteelDrivers, we always allowed every member to have their own unique voice. So our philosophy hasn’t changed. From the get-go, we encouraged Gary to be himself and sing the way he wanted to sing and not try to copy Chris [Stapleton]. Same with Brent Truitt, who has a totally different style of mandolin playing than Mike Henderson. So we have embraced their styles while maintaining the original SteelDriver mentality. The band has continued to grow and develop and now incorporates a lot Gary’s guitar work, which bring a new facet to our sound also.
PopMatters: In light of the changes to the make-up of the band, what was the process of making Hammer Down like compared to previous efforts? How have you been able to incorporate Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson as songwriters in what the band is currently doing?
Mike Fleming: The process was exactly like the first two CDs, our approach hasn’t changed. We are still dedicated to recording all original material from within the band. Mike and Chris will always be SteelDrivers to us and they have contributed three great tunes to this CD.
PopMatters: You’ve been described as a bluegrass meets soul band. How do you think combining these two categories open up what is understood of as Americana music?
Mike Fleming: It was never our intention to necessarily become a “bluesgrass” band. The music evolved from a combination of people, their musical past, and the songs. But the sound has struck a musical chord in many folks, including those outside of the bluegrass realm. That has been a very pleasant surprise. We have been fortunate to have been nominated for IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association), Americana, and Grammy awards.
PopMatters: With growing popularity of bands like the Lumineers, Avett Brothers, and the Civil Wars, how do you think the Americana category is changing, both for performers and for a listening public? Have you noticed whether the way you’ve been received by a larger audience has changed?
Mike Fleming: It’s ever expanding. The Americana category is where great music that cannot get any radio airplay resides. The bands you mention are bringing in a younger audience who may begin to listen to other groups just because they are exposed to a name or a snippet of music. So hopefully the fan base expands for everyone. As far as our audiences and fans, you won’t find any better. Whether it’s a club, theater, or festival, they are ready to hoot and holler and sing along to their favorite SteelDrivers songs. As musicians, it’s both rewarding and humbling at the same time.
PopMatters: What else does 2013 hold in store for you?
Mike Fleming: Needless to say we are excited about the possibilities. February 5th our new CD Hammer Down is released. “I’ll Be There”, a song from the new CD, will be released as a video also. And we will be out in support of this CD all this year making the music we love. [Editor’s note: See you at the Old Town School of Folk Music soon.]