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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Nobody Sounds Like the Steeldrivers (Live at the Ark)

The Steeldrivers!
Perhaps no band more quintessentially defines the sound, charisma and attitude of "SemiBluegrass" more than The Steeldrivers.  I've written about them numerous times (here, here, and here) over the past decade and gotten to know a few of them through various adventures.  Though the band has evolved through a few lineup changes, they continue to produce some of the most original, most engaging and most instantly recognizable bluegrass music today.   People will argue that their sound is more blues, folk, Americana, outlaw or rock-n-roll (take your pick), but their sound is definitely grounded in the bluegrass tradition.  Starting with the traditional mix of instrumentation, and building songs around rock-solid three-part harmonies, The Steeldrivers draw deeply on standard themes of bluegrass music--heartache, cheatin', drinkin', guns and unhappy endings--to craft songs that get in your head and refuse to leave.

Kelvin Damrell Jr. - Heart and Soul
This past week, The Steeldrivers returned to The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan to debut their new album, Bad for You, and introduce the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass audience to new frontman Kelvin Damrell Jr.Only in his mid-twenties, Damrell has the seemingly Herculean task of filling the shoes left vacant by the previous three lead singers: Chris Stapleton (five Grammy awards), Gary Nichols (won Grammy with The Steeldrivers) and Adam Wakefield (runner-up on The Voice).  Not only does Kelvin live up to these expectation, he finds his own unique way to contribute to the evolution of  The Steeldrivers.  While he can perfectly mimic Stapleton's gritty vocals, and the soul of Nichol's Muscle Shoals sound, The Steeldrivers' sound climbs to new heights fueled by the raw emotion and high-octane fury of Kelvin's voice.  This was readily apparent as the band opened with the title cut from the new album.  Bluegrass based, country themed and rock-tinged vocals drive home the power of this song (and the rest of the album).  Add to that the Mr. Damrell is an incredibly talented flatpicker who can shift effortlessly from playing rhythm (and sometimes percussion) licks behind the band to vaulting out front to add bluesy, complex solos with seemingly effortless abandon.

Richard Bailey - Always Smiling

Certainly an integral, and often overlooked component of The Steeldrivers' unique sound is the bluesy, twangy and instantly recognizable banjo stylings of Richard Bailey, an original Steeldriver who always looks like he's having the time of his life on stage--even when pulling off some of the most incredibly complex and innovative banjo licks in bluegrass today.   Richard smiles, laughs and cracks jokes throughout the entire show--obviously enjoying every second of what he does on stage.  Sitting up front, I also noticed he listens keenly to everything his bandmates do on stage, occasionally acknowledging a crazy lick or killer break with a raised eyebrow and tooth-baring grin.  Like all banjo players, he is often the butt of on-stage tuning jokes, but gives as good as he gets with some good-natured ribbing of the rest of the band.  His banjo playing is so instantly recognizable, a couple year ago I was walking into the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where--unbeknownst to me--The Steeldrivers had picked up a last second gig, my friends heard a twangy banjo and said "Hey!  There's bluegrass here John!"...and I replied "Yes!  And not just bluegrass--THAT'S THE STEELDRIVERS!".  True...it only took me about five notes of Richard's banjo playing to instantly identify the band.

Brent Truitt - Gold Top Attitude
Another quintessentially unique component of The Steeldrivers is the mandolin contributions of Brent Truitt.  His lanky physique accentuates the low-slung handling of his custom, Gold-Topped Gibson mandolin lending his playing all the Friday-night, honky-tonkin', rock-star attitude you could possibly imagine.  His rock-solid back-beat chop keep the band on time and the energy high, while he accentuates songs with tasty fills and licks.  When he steps to the mic for a break, his string-bending, bluesy lead playing can instantly transport you to a smoky Nashville or Memphis barroom at last call watching the best telecaster player you've never heard of blow your mind and stop you in your tracks on your way out the door for a date with some greasy hash-browns at Waffle House.  His playing is so bluesy, when the band covered Ghosts of Mississipi at the Ark, I almost forgot that the song originally features slide guitar licks from Mike Henderson!  His back-and-forth antics with Bailey on stage are fun to watch and he is obviously equally thrilled to get on stage with his band-mates each night.  Brent reached out to me after I reviewed his first performance at the Ark and always makes it a point to say "Hi" to me when I at a show.  A class act in all ways, he truly appreciates his fans and remains one of the most humble and warm human beings I have met.  Ironically, while at a jam session at ROMP last year I was telling the story of how I met Brent and how impressed I was with him when the woman I was talking to started laughing and couldn't agree with me more.  Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be Brent's sister-in-law (or cousin?  It's a little foggy now...)!

Rogers and Flemming - Heart and Soul
The heart and soul of The Steeldrivers have got to be founding co-members Tammy Rodgers (Fiddle) and Mike Flemming (Bass).  Rodgers cut her teeth playing fiddle and singing background for Reba McEntire and her professional take on vocal harmonies really defines the bands' sound.  Relying heavy on blue notes, and with a unique ability to punctuate and accentuate lyrics and phrases her tenor (and Flemming's baritone) can one minute blend seamlessly with Damrell's lead vocals and then transform into a choir of voices the next.  Roger's fiddle playing is equally complex and immediately identifiable.   While Flemming serves as emcee for most of the show, it is also obvious that Rogers is the stage manager keeping things running smoothly and the energy high. Both handle these duties with grace and class.  Mike Flemming often refers to Tammy as "The Rose Amongst the Thorns" and this showed at The Ark where--in a band of blue jean and plaid shirt clad boys--she chose to dress down in a simple pair of jeans and denim shirt elevated to "high style" with some firth-avenue runway "bell bottom" shirt cuffs and an absolutely KILLER pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.  Beautiful, classy and totally "Steeldrivers".

Gettin' Down with The Steeldrivers
In the end, the show at the Ark was among the best I have heard.  The songs from their past album--like fine wine or moonshine--continue to age well and the new songs both fit seamlessly with the canon and continue the evolution of The Steeldrivers.  I was only momentarily bummed that they didn't play my favorite two songs from the new album:  Glad I'm Gone is a cajun-fiddle driven, late-night drinkin' song co-written by Chris Stapleton and Lonely and Being Alone a waltz-time classic song reminiscent of a bygone era of country music.  However, I love the fact that the band played songs from all their albums--hits and deeper cuts--and plenty of crowd favorites to sing along with.  New song The Bartender tickled the "guns, whiskey and bad decisions" theme the band is so well known for--a sound they often refer to as "uneasy listening".  The night ending Rainbows Never Die  brought a tear to many an eye and capped an absolutely tremendous night of entirely original music. The Steeldrivers remain my favorite band (when I discovered bluegrass in my mid-forties,  their first album was the very first bluegrass album I purchased).  Check them out.  Get your friends to go see them.  Purchase some merch.  Support this kind of music!  Nothing else sounds like The Steeldrivers!

A few more pics from the evening below.  Follow us here, or like SeMiBluegrass on Facebook for more. 


  1. You hit the nail on the head John! (Steelhead)
    Great write up! Tune in to the Ol Hippie Bluegrass Show next week to here some,of this great bands new CD!
    Sat 8pm eastern

  2. Thanks for creating this great blog about my favorite bluegrass band The Steeldrivers. The Hee Haw television show is what turned me on to bluegrass - so much so I tried to learn to play a 5 string banjo in 6th grade. Over the years I lost interest until the first time I heard The Steeldrivers around 2010? and I have been hooked on them ever since. I too was at their 2/28/2013 show at the Ark. Waiting 7 years for them to return was hard but worth the wait. At least Ann Arbor was the 2nd show since releasing the new Bad for You Album. I had just my copy of the CD 2 days earlier but was able to sing along with all the new songs. It was a shame after all the build up for Richard's instrumental "Momma Says No" that his old Gibson did get out of tune. Also what a great title to a song where lyrics should have been easier to create. John thanks for sharing your blogs - not only great writing but you took some great photos as well.


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