Bad For You, the fifth album from Nashville's hard-edged bluegrass band The Steeldrivers, arrives after a period of triumph and adaptation. The band's 2015 release, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. In bluegrass and acoustic music circles, respect for this Nashville quintet is so strong that the win seemed somehow inevitable, like a box being checked off. For the band though, as well as its passionate audience of Steelheads, it was a much bigger deal. The Grammy validated the vision and collective striving of a string band with a rock and soul heart. Industry recognition and better bookings followed. Then just when the follow-up album was coming together, vocalist and guitar player Gary Nichols decided he needed to go his own way.
It was a setback, to be sure. Negotiating the transition from the magisterial soul country voice of band co-founder Chris Stapleton to Nichols had taken work and perseverance, but it had led to the most cohesive, impactful Steeldrivers to date. With a second singer on his way out in eight years, there were questions about how to go forward, if they could at all. But this was a unique, highly resilient band, rooted in the kind of mutual respect that only many years of personal history can forge.
Richard Bailey (banjo), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Mike Fleming (bass) and Brent Truitt (mandolin) have been musical colleagues and friends for more than three decades, which is to say nearly all of their adult lives. They were bringing their instrumental, vocal and songwriting skills to various bands, ad hoc gigs, picking parties and recording sessions long before The Steeldrivers first came together. That happened in 2005 when Nashville veteran Mike Henderson and Stapleton, a young gun on Music Row, had co-written a batch of songs that felt right for bluegrass instrumentation. Some casual get-togethers with Bailey, Fleming and Rogers led to a run of shows, a deal with historic Rounder Records and critical acclaim.While Steeldrivers 3.0 rehearsed and started playing shows, Rogers, the band's dynamic fiddle player and harmony vocalist, leaned hard into developing new material. "Having been known as a songwriting band, I felt like it was still what the band needed to do," she says. Indeed, original, band-written songs were as much a part of the Steeldrivers origin story as its infectious grooves and its R&B leanings. Those first rehearsals and shows with Stapleton/Henderson songs included "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey," "If It Hadn't Been For Love" (which was covered by pop star Adele), "Sticks That Made Thunder" and other certified band standards.
That a quintet could sound so consistent over time, while adding new repertoire and even new lead singers, is a testament to a classically Nashville way of thinking. "I always say we just happen to use traditional instruments, but we're really a singer-songwriter band," Rogers says. One regularly hears the edict to "serve the song" among top tier players in Music City. But because this is bluegrass, and this is the Steeldrivers, the truth is that often, serving the song means you gotta play like hell.