Something happened to country around the time that Garth Brooks rode easy listening pop hooks to the top of the charts—a chasm opened between the “popular” and the “good”, and never the twain have met since. Or at least you think so if you read too much No Depression. The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou, an hour long recreation of American 1930s bluegrass, blues, and gospel, moved five million units without the benefit of digitally-neutered sound or CMT videos and empirically proved that Nashville is missing out on a huge base of consumers who want to explore the roots of American music.
The seven years since that release have not seen a widespread Anthology of American Folk Music style revolt in Guitar Town, but rather the quiet unspoken knowledge that country music’s roots are still valid and exciting music. Even Kenny Chesney—the beach bum himself—toyed around with rootsy accents on his recent #1, “Never Wanted Nothing More”. Even as the song catered to the lowest common denominator of country radio, its verses’ prominent banjo melody contained enough atmosphere and energy to hint at just how much country has lost in its regression to stadium pop.
Chris Stapleton, one of the hired pens behind that song, is no longer content to leave the roots in the margins, though. With his band The Steeldrivers, Stapleton has picked up his guitar and dropped his pen, along with the B3, the soaring climaxes, and the other vestiges of urban cowboy ennui, to play a bright blend of soulful bluegrass and stringband honky tonk. After road-testing the material in clubs and festivals, the band is finally ready to unveil their debut set of eleven originals. Amongst its other industry vets, fiddler Tammy Rogers, mandolin player Mike Henderson, bassist Mike Fleming, and banjo player Richard Bailey, these players have performed and recorded with everyone from Al Green to Waylon Jennings, Reba McEntire to Bo Diddley. Their songs have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Kenny Rogers, Brooks and Dunn, Josh Turner, and Gary Allan. Admirable for a group of this track record, the band plays as if to prove that studio cats can pick out bluegrass with the best of them.
Stapleton’s vocals are the self-titled album’s focal point, a coarse blend of Ray Charles soul and the sepulchral emptiness of Johnny Cash’s baritone that, surprisingly, finds a great pairing with the mild tones of Rogers’ harmonies. The opening triptych of “Blue Side of the Mountain”, “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, and “Midnight Train to Memphis” serve not only as their three best songs but as a declaration of intent for the album as a whole. “Blue Side of the Mountain” introduces a place “so deep and dark / like the hurtin’ down in my heart”, which might as well be a manifestation of the rut of trouble and failure that these songs’ narrators find themselves. “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” is a bouncy yet cautionary tale with fine fiddle work and highlighted by Stapleton’s voice twisting and turning through the nimble melody. The uptempo number reveals how the percussive power of the banjo and mandolin make the lack of a drummer beside the point. The prison song “Midnight Train to Memphis” is next, taking full advantage of the band’s virtuosity, with the banjo playing a repetitive melody as the guitar and mandolin shifting gears as the song moves to its chorus. Stapleton also puts on his most convincing performance, singing minimal line like “10 for the jury / 10 for the judge / 20 more to forget my grudge” with power and conviction.
The rest of the album does not fully live up to the promise of these songs however, with “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone” overpowered by Stapleton’s cords. The production seems unnaturally bright and vocal-centric, given that most of the tracks were recorded live. The uptempo arrangements which sound so fun on the first listen start to grind on the listener by fifth time through. Bluegrass is at its most transcendent when the playing slows down and the songs find beauty in space and unsteady tempos, and only the bittersweet closing of “Heaven Sent” hints at this. With Luke Wooten at the boards, these players could not fully shed their Nashville skins, and it shows. The band apparently has two albums worth of songs waiting in the wings. There’s probably a bluegrass classic in there somewhere, but this isn’t it yet.