The Steeldrivers: Uneasy Listening and Contemporary Bluegrass

The Steeldrivers is a contemporary band that is labeled as bluegrass, but they do not consider themselves to be strictly bluegrass. They created a unique sound by blending bluegrass with dark lyrics and bluesy vocals. Some of the band members were bluegrass musicians before joining the Steeldrivers, and others played different genres of music.

Their Fiddler, Tammy Rogers, grew up listening to bluegrass music and performed with country musicians Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McEntire. Their original lead singer, Chris Stapleton, is a blues singer and songwriter. He was not an experienced bluegrass musician when he joined the Steeldrivers. Two of the original members, Chris Stapleton (lead singer and guitarist) and Mike Henderson (mandolin and slide guitar player), left the band between 2010 and 2011 and were replaced by Gary Nichols (current lead singer and guitarist) and Brent Truitt (current mandolin player). Like Chris Stapleton, Gary Nichols is a blues and soul singer and songwriter, so he continued to add bluesy vocals to the band. Gary Nichols has been a fan of bluegrass for a long time, but the Steeldrivers is the first all-acoustic band that he has played in. Since Gary Nichols and Brent Truitt joined the band, they have more lead instruments with the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle each taking breaks evenly. The breaks on their past albums were split more heavily between the banjo and fiddle.

From a Wall Street Journal Interview at Bonnaroo in 2009, Mike Henderson (original mandolin and slide guitar player) described their musical approach as, “Instead of trying to play each song as though it were a bluegrass song, we just say we’re going to use these instruments and do what’s best for the song.” From a Country Fried Rock Radio Interview, Mike Fleming (bassist) explained, “We aren’t a bluegrass band in the typical sense. Instead of the lead vocals having the high lonesome sound of Bill Monroe, it’s a gravelly, blues singer.”

In 2006, they played at a showcase at IBMA, and in 2009 they won IBMA’s award for Emerging Artist of the Year. Since then, the Steeldrivers have been nominated for three Grammys, four IBMA awards, and the Americana Music Association’s New Artist of the Year. They played at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival at IBMA this year in Raleigh, North Carolina. Although the Steeldrivers do not describe themselves as purely a bluegrass band, they play at many bluegrass festivals and events. This relates to Peterson’s “Credible in Current Context” definition of authenticity, because the “authentic” centers on being believable or credible to the contemporary general observer. The “authentic” changes with time, and that is why more contemporary bands are being invited to perform at IBMA and other events labeled “bluegrass.”

Many of the Steeldrivers’ songs have dark themes, and they have a new, modern sound to their murder ballads. This song is called “If It Hadn’t Been For Love,” and these are the original members with Chris Stapleton singing.

They received some attention in the popular music world, because British pop singer, Adele, covered this song.

When Gary Nichols became the lead singer, he brought this song to the band that he wrote about a stalker called “I’ll Be There.”

The Steeldrivers’ music has been described as “uneasy listening.” According to Peterson’s “Authenticities,” many of the attributes in their music, such as instrumentation and stage presentation, would be described as “hard country” over “soft country,” but it does contain some elements from both categories. Their singing style and lyrical content are a mixture of “hard country” and “soft country.”

The definition of authenticity that fits this type music is “Real, not Imitative.” This definition is commonly used for contemporary music. The Steeldrivers’ music is created from their own personal styles, expressions and experiences and is not artificial or imitative.

According to Cantwell’s article “Upstairs, Downstairs, Out in the Kitchen,” the Steeldrivers’ music fits into the categories of the “Front Porch” and the “Kitchen.” “Kitchen Bluegrass” is music played by professional musicians in the recording studio where they commit their music to recordings and then to a commercial market. “Front-Porch Bluegrass” refers to live performances where a musician or band is most fully realized in concert.

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