4 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Bluegrass music is a hard soundscape in which to try and do something new. Synthesized in 1946 by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and friends, it is still a young musical style, but its unwritten rules and widely practiced traditions have made rare the bands that spring fully formed on the scene with a radically new sound that still deserves the label bluegrass.
A collective of Nashville pickers and singers, the SteelDrivers did that in 2008, integrating the sounds and swagger of outlaw country and blues-rock (though not straight blues, that’s a challenge still waiting to be met) into the bluegrass sound without adding extraneous instrumentation or needlessly complicated arrangements.
They perfected their recorded style with 2010‘s Reckless, which was released with the word that it marked the end of Chris Stapleton’s run with the band, leaving many wondering if the group could retain its power without the wild, gritty soul that the truly gifted lead singer gave the band.
But word soon got out that replacement Gary Nichols was every bit the singer Stapleton was, and Hammer Down confirms it for those who’ve missed the SteelDrivers live shows. Indeed, though after a couple of listens through good headphones I’ve decided that Nichols’ voice is just a tinge smoother than Stapleton’s, I did a few double takes when playing it in the car the first couple of times—the edges are plenty rough enough to leave a mark.
Tammy Rogers’ presence with harmony vocals that are feminine without being soft makes Nichols sound that much stronger, and her fiddle grabs the blue notes and the ancient tones alike. Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass), and Brent Truitt (mandolin) resist what must be a strong temptation to bash and shred their way through these songs as strongly as Nichols sings them, instead they ride a tasteful swing that make for a wider dynamic range than you realize the first time through.
The ten songs that clock in at 35 minutes are all good, being a bit more varied in subject and arrangement than those on either previous project. The album-closing “When I’m Gone” is a sunnier song that suggests this great band will continue to grow without leaving behind the approach that sets them apart.