“The Muscle Shoals Recordings” by the SteelDrivers

The SteelDrivers
The Muscle Shoals Recordings
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

With their fourth album since their 2008 debut immediately established them as one of the most significant bluegrass bands of their generation, the SteelDrivers continue writing great original songs to which they apply impeccable bluegrass chops, bluesy arrangements, and soulful singing.

Lead singer Gary Nichols—who excelled at the unenviable task of succeeding Chris Stapleton as frontman with exhilarating performances on 2013’s Hammer Down—obviously feels comfortable recording in his hometown studio. “Drinkin’ Alone,” “Day Before Temptation,” “Too Much,” and, especially, “Long Way Down” proves Nichols’ soul singing is as bona fide as that of many of the legends who’ve recorded at the town’s more famous studio.

The quintet’s bluegrass instrumental foundation is as sound as ever, with Nichols (guitar), Richard Bailey (banjo), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Brent Truitt (mandolin), and Mike Fleming (bass) able to drive hard and fast, as well as downshift into a swampy McCouryesque gear for “Six Feet Away” and “Ashes of Yesterday,” with Rogers and Truitt spitting out fills and breaks as sharp and biting as Jason Carter and Ronnie McCoury would.

With Nichols as writer or co-writer on five of the disc’s 11 tracks, Tammy Rogers having a hand in four, and Bailey’s original instrumental “California Chainsaw,” the band’s songwriting proves, yet again, to be perhaps the strongest element in their unique and unified sound—heck, the only song not original to this lineup, “Drinkin’ Alone,”is a Chris Stapleton co-write.

“Hanging’ Around,” “Here She Goes” (both penned by Nichols) and the cinematic “River Runs Red” (written by Rogers, Jerry Salley, and Liz Hengber) are softer, more melodic, and emotionally deep songs that continue to hint at the broader dynamic and creative range the SteelDrivers are capable of exploring.