Posts Tagged ‘Gary Nichols’

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The SteelDrivers: A Hot Ticket

13 June 2012

Bluegrass and gospel share something like a sibling relationship: they are genres bound together in spirit. Last week, I offered an example of a gospel tune, “River of Jordan,” given a pretty straight-ahead bluegrass treatment by The Bluegrass Gospel Project. Compare that with this number by The SteelDrivers from last summer’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival:

Friends, I’m seeking some spiritual guidance here: Am I going to hell for thinking that Tammy Rogers’ performance is, um…sexy? I see her do that little shimmy and— heaven? Brother, I’m already there. Sacrilege or healthy response? Discuss.

Actually, harnessing the engine of desire (so to speak) in service of the holy is an old trick.  Consider these classic lines:

That is, of course, the old standard “Holy Sonnet XIV” by  John Donne (1572-1631), who certainly knew both sides of the secular/sacred fence. As you can see, Donne has a field day mixing lusty metaphors with pious metaphysics in the poem, ultimately swooning to a climax by asking the Almighty to “ravish” him. Yowzah. So if you think I’m a lewd dude for focusing so much on the seductive qualities of Rogers’ song, well, at least I’m putting her in august company.

By the way, when I say “Rogers’ song,” I mean it: Rogers co-wrote “You Can’t Buy a Ticket to Heaven” with well-known alt-rocker Victoria Williams. Even if you leave the shimmy out of it, the song is catchy as heck. I hope it gets heard more widely.

Guess it’s apparent by now that I’m a member of the Tammy Rogers Fan Club. The SteelDrivers have weathered some significant line-up changes over the past couple of years, but if Rogers ever moves on, the end times shall be upon that band. She brings a ferocious, yowling bluesiness to her fiddling that puts her in a class all her own.

In Black and White

Part of what accounts for the range of styles encompassed by the gospel you hear in bluegrass these days is the fact we’re actually hearing the confluence of two fairly distinct musical traditions. On the one hand there is black gospel, which draws from the rich legacy of spirituals and the music of the African-American church. On the other hand there is white gospel, an amalgam of camp meeting tunes, Southern Protestant hymns and shape note singing. Not surprisingly, the pioneers of bluegrass drew heavily— though certainly not exclusively— from the white gospel tradition in which they were steeped, and you can still hear that tradition in much of the bluegrass gospel music that’s performed today, including “River of Jordan.” However, to my ears at least, a song like “You Can’t Buy a Ticket to Heaven” owes a lot to the black gospel tradition. I hear it both in the bouncing rhythm and the dips the melody takes here and there. Listen to Sandy Cherryholmes’ song “Changed in a Moment” for another example of a contemporary bluegrass song that owes a lot to the African-American gospel tradition. Slowly but surely, cultural barriers defined by race are falling. Why wouldn’t this also be happening in bluegrass?

Yer Pal— Curly

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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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