It is one thing for a promising band (quite promising: three Grammy nominations for its first two albums, four IBMA awards, Americana Music Association Artist of the Year) to lose one member, quite another to lose two of its key components. Carrying on after such a blow is perhaps not such an achievement, but carrying on at the same high level is remarkable indeed. On Hammer Down, the reconstituted Steeldrivers, now minus the exceptional gifts of Chris Albertson and Mike Henderson (except as songwriters), prove themselves still formidable, even a bit harder edged than in their original incarnation. That is to say, this album’s title could hardly be more appropriate to describe the goings-on herein and the result is a testament to the resolve of founding members Tammy Rogers (fiddle, vocals), Richard Bailey (banjo) and Mike Flemming (bass, vocals) who are now joined on this journey by veterans Gary Nichols (guitar, vocals) and Brent Truitt (mandolin). No one misses a lick.
Though they may be gone, Stapleton and Henderson are still on board as songwriters, with their original contributions supplemented by new tunes from Rogers and Truitt. And though the current vocalists can’t supplant Stapleton’s striking blues-gospel wails and moans, they can match anyone in terms of grit and intensity–as is evident from the git-go, with the haunted, near-desperate testifying in the grinding murder ballad “Shallow Graves” (at the end, as the song winds down, the singer cries out, “oh, I buried my love…in a shallow grave,” a moment so unexpected and so raw as to be a jolting reminder to the listener that it’s murder we‘re talking about here). Banjo and fiddle set the aching ambiance of “How Long Have I Been Your Fool,” a she-done-him-wrong song that soars on the wings of a lush, harmonized chorus of equal parts dark (the male voice) and light (Rogers’s keening cry) and is about as perfect a bluegrass heartbreaker as anyone could ask, replete with confusion, yearning and anger.
The Steeldrivers, ‘Wearin’ a Hole,’ from Hammer Down
In fact, in considering the songs on Hammer Down, heartache appears to suit this configuration well: post-romance desolation is vividly sketched in waltz time in “Lonesome Goodbye,” Gary Nichols singing in a parched, forlorn voice as he comes to grips with being utterly alone–“I could stay this way forever/never swallow any pride/pretend I’m doing better/than the way I feel inside/like I’m livin’ a lie…”–until the story takes a most unexpected twist, when both parties to the sad ending meet each other wandering bereft on the street, making the “lonesome goodbye” ironic indeed. On the uptempo side, “Hell on Wheels” is a 2:53 sprint, rising and falling in intensity with a spirited mandolin solo from Truitt with Rogers hard on his heels with an exuberant fiddle driving a tune documenting an unbridled young gal’s (the singer says she won’t live long enough to see a “sweet sixteen”) wild, destructive ways; “Wearin’ a Hole” is a honky tonk toe tapper about a fellow drinkin’ and dancin’ his lovesick blues away at the local joint, complete with a classic keening chorus and atmospheric solos from fiddle, mandolin and guitar in turn.
The Steeldrivers, ‘The Lonesome Goodbye,’ a live version of a song from Hammer Down, at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival, Preston, CT, June 2, 2012. Lead vocal by Gary Nichols. Video by Stephen Ide.
Two songs Nichols wrote with John Paul White of the Civil Wars are a mixed bag: the melodramatic post-breakup ballad “I’ll Be There” reaches for grandeur in the male-female harmonies (Rogers, again, hits the heart dead-on with her piercing cries) and in Rogers’s majestic fiddling, but it’s also precious in the way that makes a little bit of the Civil Wars go a long way; the more compelling “Cry No Mississippi” combines the themes of “Lonesome Goodbye” and “I’ll Be There”–love unquenched by partings–in a more energetic, fiddle-fired framework keyed by an earthy, blues-drenched vocal of striking conviction.
Welcome to the new Steeldrivers, not quite the same as the old Steeldrivers but changed in ways that make sense and haven’t diminished the music or the group’s identity. Hitting as hard as its predecessors, Hammer Down is a triumphant return for one of the day’s premier roots combos.