Steeldrivers at Grey Fox: Work in Progress

20 January 2012

NOTE: The following post has been edited to reflect some corrections and new information passed along by The SteelDrivers bassist and vocalist Mike Fleming. Big tip of the hat to Mike for his input!— Curly

To paraphrase a song lyric, “Everything old is news again.” Here I’ve been sitting on some fine performance footage of The SteelDrivers that I recorded last summer, when along comes an announcement at Christmastime: Mike Henderson, the group’s mandolin and steel guitar player, is decamping. How much you care about this development no doubt depends on how you feel about The SteelDrivers in general. For any of you fence-sitters, have a look and a listen as the group tears through “Cry No Mississippi,” a foot-stompin’ anthem at the 2011 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival:

Fellow band mates have described Henderson as something of a father figure for the group. It was Henderson who recruited the other founding members of the band. Viewed from the cheap seats, however, this central role might strike some as odd.  After all, Henderson’s presence on stage and in recordings is so low-key as to be ephemeral. In fact, on hearing that The SteelDrivers’ mandolin player was leaving, one friend replied (without irony, I believe), “That band has a mandolin player?”

Actually, my pal was on to something, for despite the group’s wide acclaim, The SteelDrivers may have felt like something of a digression for Henderson. Though a gifted and seasoned musician, he seems more of a bluesman than a bluegrasser— a fact that’s hinted at by his slide steel work in the clip above.

This marks the second departure from The SteelDrivers’ original line-up. Chris Stapleton, the group’s lead singer, signed off at the end of 2009. Stapleton’s growling vocals and brooding lyrics largely defined the band’s style, and there were those who felt that the jig was up as soon as he packed up his guitar and split.

I wasn’t in that camp. While Stapleton is a unique talent, he always looked vaguely freaked out to find himself on stage. In contrast, his replacement, Gary Nichols, seems to bask in the spotlight. As this video demonstrates, when it comes to live shows at any rate, that counts for something.

According to SteelDrivers bassist and vocalist Mike Fleming, “Cry No Mississippi” will be included on the group’s next album, which they plan to start work on in March.  The song is one of several that Nichols brought to the group. He wrote it with John Paul White (best known today as half of the alt-country duo The Civil Wars) and it got a bit of exposure a decade ago when it was recorded by country crooner Andy Griggs. Based on The SteelDrivers’ Grey Fox performance, I’d say it’s a keeper. I particularly like the way Tammy Roger’s harmonies and fiddling match Nichols’ scorching delivery, note for note.

For my money, I’d say there’s more chemistry and energy on display in this performance than could generally be found at shows in the band’s early days. So, while there’s certainly a risk that Stapleton and Henderson’s departures will cause The SteelDrivers to sputter out, there’s also a chance that the upheaval will permit the group to evolve into a more vital performing unit. While we await their fate, I’ll be serving up some more tasty samples of their work in the near future. Stay tuned.

Yer Pal— Curly

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