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Music to your ears

The SteelDrivers

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05/01/2008 - As with many genres of music, Bluegrass as an archetype has become canonized. In other words, when it comes to listening to bluegrass music, there are attendant expectations. Fiddles, mandolin, banjo, bass, and guitars are expected, as are high, lonesome vocals containing tight harmonies. As for subject matter, bluegrass lyrics should contain a certain gallery of images and ideals: pine trees, cabins, mountains, whiskey, faith, and tales of unrequited love. Often these love stories are of the darkest nature, and have to do with not only leaving an unfaithful partner, but killing them to ease the pain.

The SteelDrivers deliver all this and then some on their first release. The "then some" comes in the form of the astounding vocals of guitarist Chris Stapleton. Prior to this album, Chris has made a name for himself in Nashville circles as a solid songwriter. But watch out, folks. He is bound to become renowned for his vocal prowess from here on out.

I honestly have never heard a more arresting and impressive singer in any bluegrass band, ever. I first heard Chris' voice while listening to the bluegrass channel on XM. The song was called "To Be With You Again," and when I heard him singing I literally pulled over to listen. Imagine Ray Charles (with even more soul!) singing bluegrass, and you'll know what I was hearing. The song begins with Chris singing by himself with an accompanying mandolin. Wow. His voice is gravel-y and drips with soulful blues. Seriously, it will stop you dead in your tracks if you care about this sort of thing. I listened to the song, then went and bought the album, which came out late in 2007.

As for the album, it's outstanding. It's full of solid bluegrass songs, all of them featuring not only the incredible voice of Chris Stapleton, but the high harmonies of fiddle player Tammy Rogers. There are definite elements of jazz and blues present within several of the songs, but the band never strays too far away from the aforementioned archetype. Collectively and individually, the songs on the SteelDrivers album are strong, probably owing to both Stapleton's and mandolin player Mike Henderson's experience as Nashville songwriters.

In fact, several of these songs rock. Yep. I said "Rock." The first cut just jams. It will compel you to turn up your stereo and rock out to that big, fat stand-up bass and bluesy groove. And how about this for a lyric? "So deep and dark, like a hurtin' down in my heart…" Yeah, brothers and sisters. That's what I'm talkin' about.

Throughout the remainder of the album, there are traditional bluegrass songs mixed with killer bluesy, jammin' stuff. This thing is so good that I can't stop listening to it, and I can't wait for their next offering. And…I can't wait to see them. They will be playing the RockyGrass festival down in Colorado this summer, and I will be there. I hope some of you will be, too. If you don't believe me when I tell you how good these guys are, go ahead and YouTube them. You'll see…

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