Music

The SteelDrivers - 'Hammer Down' (Album Premiere)

PopMatters proudly premieres the latest album by soulful neo-bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers, Hammer Down.

 

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.]

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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