Published Jun 12, 2015Despite losing founding members Chris Stapleton (vocals) and Mike Henderson (multi-instrumentalist) in 2010 and 2011, respectively, the SteelDrivers maintained a creative attachment to their former band mates despite the addition of Gary Nichols on vocals and Brent Truitt on mandolin. While 2013's Hammer Down may have been Gary Nichols' debut with the band as lead vocalist, almost half the songs on that record were written with the assistance of Stapleton and Henderson. The Muscle Shoals Recordings is the album on which Nichols has taken control.
In addition to co-writing five of the album's 11 songs, Nichols was the driving force behind recording the album in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, his hometown and the locale of Jimmy Nutt's NuttHouse Studios. On this record, the SteelDrivers are making a name for themselves without Henderson and Stapleton. For The Muscle Shoals Recordings, songwriting duties were in large part taken over by Nichols and fiddle player Tammy Rogers. Between the two, they had a hand in writing nine out of 11 songs.
Gary Nichols seizes his opportunity to lead, writing quality bluegrass tunes about modern living, God's vengeance and divorce. His delivery is snappy and wild, characterized by a flair for hollering situational insights and consequences. Much of the record's songs ("Brother John," "Too Much," "The Day Before Temptation" and "Long Way Down") are concerned with the transgressions of others, allowing Nichols to act as part chronicler and part teller of cautionary tales. "Here She Goes," about divorce, is the lone moment of fragility for Nichols; elsewhere, the unerring harmonies of Tammy Rogers and the rest of the SteelDrivers provide the album's softness.
The album allows each member an opportunity to strut their stuff, especially on the instrumental "California Chainsaw." The Richard Bailey composition begins with a speedy banjo riff that eventually becomes a series of alternating leads that seamlessly cascade into one another; the dominant banjo is supplanted by the shine of Rogers' fiddle, who returns the spotlight to the banjo, who forwards it on to the mandolin, all while Mike Fleming keeps steady time on bass.
Yet, while The Muscle Shoals Recordings reaffirms the SteelDrivers' deserved prominence in the bluegrass world, it does little to transcend the genre's current boundaries. Having a new songwriting dynamic at the forefront of the group afforded the SteelDrivers a great opportunity to chart unexplored territories, but like the bluegrass genre itself, the band is heavily tied to its past. The freer, looser approach Nichols brings to the fold, however, makes the next release one to be on guard for. (Rounder)