Two parts dark elegance and grit, the SteelDriver’s latest Muscle Shoals Recordings feels like a natural extension of their previous release, Hammer Down in a multitude of ways. You have Gary Nichols’s cataclysmic, jagged and uninhibited vocal and guitar delivery paired with equally as compellingly calamitous instrumentation courtesy of Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Richard Bailey (banjo), Brent Truitt (mandolin), and Mike Fleming (bass), and by extension, you have a studio full of acoustic instruments to hearken back kindly to their titular John Henry notions against fighting the production machine. Everything that makes the SteelDrivers, fundamentally, the SteelDrivers, is present and laid out on the table totally disrobed, with no frilly affectations or studio voodoo accentuating their raw mix. Yet, whether it’s because they’re a little darker, a little grittier, or a little more practiced, The Muscle Shoals Recordings feels as fundamentally standalone as it does the same.
As always, The Muscle Shoals Recordings is chockfull of tracks which permeate a traditional bluegrass sound. You won’t find any newgrass technicalities that bands like the Punch Brothers are rocking in the current age; this quintet is unabashedly old school in just about every way audio-visually imaginable, letting their innovation flow from their grit rather than their production. The strength in the band’s songwriting offers a gentle lilt of sophistication to their performance, offering a cathartic quality to their work. This holds true even in songs as ridden in blues as “The Day Before Temptation”, with lyrics such as “When the thrill is gone you’ll be left out in the rain,” and “It’ll stab you in the back just like a knife/it’ll take your house, your kids, and your wife.”
It’s in moments like this that you realize that the band has had a significant rise in terms of storytelling quality; whether it be in Nichols’s further experience touring on the road or just within collective life moments, his voice melds even more convincingly with themes of love loss, lust, and murder on “Brother John” and “Drinkin’ Alone” than the studio recordings of “Shallow Grave” and “Cry No Mississippi”, respectively. Featuring Jason Isbell, the former of the two aforementioned is particularly notable, maintaining its individualistic place on the record as a ballad from the standpoint of a man whose brother has committed the dastardly deed of killing a lawman’s spouse. The latter, meanwhile, features a danceable jive to its melody that makes for a pleasingly incongruent duplet with lyrics drenched in self-loathing blues.
“Ashes of Yesterday” carries an almost Hank Williams-esque old country intonation as Nichols croons across a threnody to a love gone-by and the moments that nostalgia carry him on a ride through a depressive streak. The delivery of the track offer it more to the idea of aforementioned cathartics than anything, perhaps mostly due to its sardonically jolly relatability; regardless of reason, it remains a staple of the Muscle Shoals Recordings at large. Elsewhere, their exemplification of instrumental skills on “California Chainsaw” adds a cohesiveness to the record by setting their abilities in stone, all whilst feeling more like a mindful passion project than something made just to show off their musical brains. It’s something that sets the record straight on any SteelDrivers project: not unlike John Henry, they’re fighting an uphill battle against the digitization of the industry, with their bare hands and organic instrumentation as their only weapons. They do it so darn well that they might just win.