The Steeldrivers are, fundamentally, a bluegrass band. In both instrumentation and songwriting style, their songs are recognizable descendants of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. The difference, really, is in attitude.
“One of my favorite descriptions of us is, ‘Imagine what The Rolling Stones would sound like playing traditional instruments,’” offers Tammy Rogers, the group’s fiddle player and one of the founding members. “It’s that edge, that swagger, that blues thing, that’s the extra thing, just played on traditional instruments.”
Initially, a lot of that attitude and style seemed to stem from guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, who served as the band’s lead vocalist through their early years and first two LPs before departing to start what has become a massively successful solo career. A gritty, soulful singer who seamlessly blends Americana twang with Southern rock might, Stapleton’s voice and songs seemed impossible to extricate from The Steeldrivers’ appeal.
But a funny thing happened when he left: The group, which had always featured multiple songwriters and a collaborative dynamic, continued and even deepened their commitment to that original, distinctive approach to bluegrass, first with ringer Gary Nichols on lead vocals and now with Kelvin Damrell, a budding singer who first rose to prominence after winning a Chris Stapleton cover contest.
As Rogers is right to proclaim, The Steeldrivers were always more than a Stapleton vehicle.
“I think that was very important to me when the group got together,” Rogers says. “In all honesty, I would not have been interested in becoming a member of a band had it not been something that was creatively interesting to me and something that was based on original music and doing things a little differently,”
It helps that The Steeldrivers, though they’re now firmly established, critically acclaimed and Grammy-winning, began as a group of ace Nashville session players and songwriters as a loose side project, a creative outlet rather than as a meal ticket.
“It totally started that way,” Rogers confirms. “I continued to tour with Reba [McEntire] for the first four years of the band, and we were all continuing to write and do lots of session work and stuff like that. It was pretty cool that it was just kind of bubbling off on the side, and then finally one day it became apparent that I needed to make a choice. We had a bunch of dates coming in, and I couldn’t do both.”
Rogers’ decision is similar to the one that both Stapleton and co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Mike Henderson faced when they left the group. And, in a way, the rotation of members has become just as much a part of the band as it is was of classic bluegrass groups that persisted throughout the years.
What stays the same is what makes The Steeldrivers who they are — bluegrass music with a gritty, soulful vibe and a deep well of sound that wins them fans across the spectrum of Americana and rock.
“It’s the energy and the edginess of the music that I’m always looking for, and having a different story to tell,” Rogers says. “All of our songs, even the ones that I call bluegrass party band songs, if you really listen to the lyrics, there’s more to it than kind of meets the eye. And then, I’m always looking for that groove, something different than what is typical of bluegrass.”
The band just recently wrapped up recording their fifth full-length, a project that, Rogers reports, deepens the band’s commitment to its sound while “pushing the boundaries a bit.” She expects the album will come out in early 2020.
“I think we’re just continuing our journey,” she concludes. “We don’t put out records every year, so it’s kind of a big deal for us.”
What: The Steeldrivers
Where: The Senate, 1022 Senate St.
When: Thursday, Sept. 5, 8 p.m.
With: Granville Automatic
Price: $28 seated, $23 standing ($20-$25 advance)