Posts Tagged ‘Steeldrivers’


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


The Blues in Bluegrass

28 January 2012

Mike Henderson Gets the Blues

As I reported in a previous post, Mike Henderson recently announced his departure from the Steeldrivers, the popular bluegrass outfit known for its bouncy paeans to bloodlust and whiskey. I also mentioned that, despite his role in putting that group together, bluegrass seemed to be more of an avocation than an occupation for Henderson. I based this assertion in part on the low profile that Henderson maintained with The Steeldrivers, but I was also guided by some additional intelligence that I’ll share with you now— a Cousin Curly exclusive!

I was visiting Nashville a couple of years ago when I learned that Henderson had a regular gig at the Bluebird Café. Though it’s tucked into an unassuming suburban strip mall, the Bluebird is sacred ground for Nashville’s songwriting community. I was curious to see what sort of act a veteran bluegrass picker and session musician would bring to such an intimate venue.

As you can see and hear, Henderson and his merrie band were ripping through one swampy electric blues number after another. That’s how it went the whole night. And I have to say, whether he was exhorting the crowd to ignore the Bluebird’s famous no-talking-during-songs rule or belting out another baleful tune, Henderson seemed a good deal more relaxed than any of the several times I saw him perform with The Steeldrivers. Clearly, this was his home turf and the blues was his mother tongue.

‘Twas in the Spring, One Sunny Day

Superficially, bluegrass and the blues might seem to be products of cultures that have stood apart from one another. The blues was, of course, a cornerstone of African American culture during the first half of the 20th century, initially developing in the rural South and then evolving into an urban genre as African Americans migrated to the cities. Meanwhile, bluegrass first took hold as a musical genre among white folks in Appalachia and the South.

In reality, however, these art forms weren’t as segregated as the cultures from whence they sprang. Certainly in the case of bluegrass, the music was flavored by the blues from the outset. At the same time that the “Great Migration” was bringing thousands of black families from the southern delta into the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, many poor whites from the southern mountains were flocking to those same industrial centers, getting exposed to the blues and other musical styles along the way. Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, made a point of crediting the early influence that Arnold Shultz, an African American itinerant musician, had on his playing. His first single as a solo artist was a blues number (albeit one written by a white man), “Mule Skinner Blues” and “blue notes” play a big role in Monroe-style mandolin.

Here’s a blues that every bluegrasser knows— “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” I captured this performance by The Seldom Scene at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. Like a number of performers, the group started the tune off slow and then “kicked it up.” And yes, it really was “in the spring, one sunny day.” Have a listen…

When Dudley Connell and Lou Reid trade off vocal duties on the slow and fast parts, they play up nicely how two traditions come together in this song. Connell’s delivery is relaxed and bluesy, whereas Reid’s is hard-driving and full of southern twang.

The history of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” neatly exemplifies the cross-pollination that has occurred between the blues and bluegrass. The Mississippi Sheiks, an African American blues band, first recorded the song in 1930. By 1935, it had been recorded by the king of Texas swing, Bob Wills. I’d be curious to hear proposals as to which musician made the first bluegrass recording— a distinction that I would think is a bit hard to pin down, inasmuch as a number of string bands were playing the tune before bluegrass as such existed. In any case, the song has been a staple of bluegrass for at least six decades.

In our current era of cultural atomization, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of how much overlap and commonality there is among the artistic traditions that are at the core of our heritage and our identity.

Yer Pal— Curly


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


Cherryholmes and Bluegrass Power Chords

18 October 2010

Autumn may be the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but here at Second Cousin Curly, it’s also “Season of Cherryholmes.” I’ve already expounded on the Cherryholmes juggernaut (click here for that entry), but I’ve got lots more music to share from this talented group’s appearance at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival.

Here’s a brand new tune from the ensemble’s latest album, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. The composition— co-written by BJ Cherryholmes and his younger sister Molly— is called “Tattoo of a Smudge.” The title refers to the permanent ink that collects on the sides of musicians’ hands after they have been signing a lot of merchandise at shows. Doesn’t that clear things up? I’ll let the music speak for itself—

Listening to  Cherryholmes going to town on this tune got me to thinking about a musical trope that has become a fixture in contemporary bluegrass, something that I call the “bluegrass power chord.”

Before we go any further, let me anticipate a question that might come up with regard to the following clip, namely, “Was I drunk when I made it?” Friends, in truth, I was stone cold sober, but this doesn’t exactly get me off the hook, since I’ll be the first to admit that the video makes very little sense. After gassing on this summer about the pernicious influence of percussion in bluegrass and other burning issues, I had decided that my proper place was behind the camera. I know I should have staid the course in this regard, but the current topic required a fair number of examples, and once I had settled upon a musical show-and-tell format, I didn’t see how I could avoid putting my ugly mug— Oh, just have a look and see what you think…

I’m less concerned about looking like a lunatic* here than I am about failing to make my point. You see, having committed to treading the boards once more, I was determined at least to get through the whole exercise as quickly as possible. As a result, I raced through the various musical excerpts, making it very hard for even the attentive listener to grasp my point.

Be that as it may, I still believe there is a case to be made here. Watch Sandy Cherryholmes hitting those chords in the first video clip, or turn the dial to the Bluegrass Channel on satellite radio or some other outlet for contemporary bluegrass, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Whereas bluegrass up until around 1970 was marked by a steady backbeat punctuated by the occasional lick or fill from the rhythm guitar, today’s music features surging rhythms that are often quite tightly arranged. That caesura that you hear in Ricky Skagg’s version of “Walls of Time”— the little hiccup where the whole band seems to take a collective breath— is a common stylistic device for contemporary groups like The Steeldrivers and Blue Highway.

As the carol goes, “Do you hear what I hear?” If so, when exactly did bluegrass get that extra rhythmic punch? Where did it come from? Send me your thoughts, and should you try to make one, let me know how that “bluegrass turntable” works out. A word of caution, however: try it out first on your old Bay City Rollers LPs and keep those bluegrass heirlooms on the shelf.

Yer Pal— Curly

*Self-flagellating postscript: Precisely why I was drawn like a moth to immolate myself on the flame of exhibitionism is a matter I’ll be taking up shortly with my bluegrass therapist, Dr. George Dickel.

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