According to the legend, John Henry was a steel driving man who could hammer through rocks with his bare hands faster than a man with a steam-powered device. Henry won the race against the new-fangled tool, but he died with his hammer in his hand. The SteelDrivers emulate John Henry in that the group members play only acoustic instruments — just their bare hands — and makes more loud music than any of those electrified groups. In addition, the string band creates high energy music without the noodlin’ common to newgrass and other recent versions of the bluegrass sound. The SteelDrivers focus on power more than speed on Hammer Down.
That’s not to say the music cannot move fast. After all this is mostly bluegrass, a genre known for its velocity. But the SteelDrivers’ sound has a brawny muscularity. Some people derisively call bluegrass “insect music” because it can resemble the high pitched hums and chirps of crickets and katydids on a hot night. That’s not true here. Despite the same basic bluegrass instrumentation of banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bass combined with vocal harmonies, the SteelDrivers come across more like bears in the woods that you don’t want to cross than bugs or beetles. Being natural doesn’t always mean being sweet and harmless.
Maybe that’s because the SteelDrivers seem to take the blues side of bluegrass to heart, as all 10 songs on the new record are unhappy. There are murder ballads about burying one’s love in a “Shallow Grave”, cheating tunes that ask “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” and wonder “When You Don’t Come Home”, as well as weepers such as “Lonesome Goodbye” and “Cry No Mississippi.” It should be mentioned that all the songs are written or co-written by current and former members of the band (Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson have left the group leaving it a five piece ensemble with Richard Bailey, Mike Fleming, Gary Nichols, Tammy Rogers and Brent Truitt.) There’s not a lighthearted song in the bunch, although the joys of honky-tonkin’ on “Wearing a Hole” comes closest. Yet even on this track the whiskey drinking, music loving barroom dweller acknowledges he’s at the establishment so he can drown his sorrows because his woman has left him high and dry.
None of this would matter if the playing and singing wasn’t so tight. All of the instrumentalists seem tightly wound and deliver their licks like shooting bullets from a gun, even when the melodies swoop and fall. Bailey’s banjo playing in particular seems to come from a deep murky place instead of that happy one often equated with the instrument. Nichols’ sandpaper vocals adds an ache to the lyrics, especially when he sings about scenarios such as the one about a kid whose mom drowned herself in a sea of Jim Beam and whose dad beats him with a hickory stick. He sets the stage so when the others harmonize with him, they just add shadows to the darkness.
In many ways, bluegrass music in general and the sound of the SteelDrivers seems antithetical to modern times. Everything about it is old fashioned and out of date. Its continued popularity reveals this is not the case. John Henry may have died fighting the good fight against mechanization and for the dignity of human labor, but the SteelDrivers continue the battle to create music without the aid of automated assistance. They know that mothers may neglect their children and fathers beat them (check out “Burnin’ Down the Woodshed” for an unromantic treatment of family life). The music on Hammer Down energetically exemplifies the human contributions necessary for making life inherently valuable.