The Steel Drivers w/ Front Country – Sunday December 31st, 2017
Right there, at two minutes and ten seconds into the first song, “Long Way Down.” The part where Gary Nichols sings, “Girl, we both know where your soul is bound.” Only he bleeds it as much as he sings it. He sounds murderous, maniacal. Her soul is bound for nothing skyward, for nothing heavenly. And he’s fine with that.
Richard Bailey’s banjo plays funky, little Kentucky-goes-to-Memphis rolls. Tammy Rogers’ fiddle soars. Brent Truitt’s mandolin chops time, and Mike Fleming’s bass pounds the downbeat. And all that is righteous and right-on. Elevated, even. But Nichols—he lets loose something the opposite of righteousness. It’s a howl, full of hurt and anger and life. Starts on the highest E note that 99.9% of male singers can hit, then ascends into a sweet falsetto, and then opens up like the gates of Hell, into a reeling screech.
“That made me dizzy for a second,” Nichols says, remembering the moment he sang the line. “Really, I almost passed out. There are certain lines in SteelDrivers songs that require a little bit of Wilson Pickett.”
Nichols knows about Wilson Pickett, who recorded “Mustang Sally” at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, less than three miles from Jimmy Nutt’s NuttHouse, where the SteelDrivers recorded these Muscle Shoals Recordings. Nichols is from Muscle Shoals. He grew up as a guitar slinger and a soul shouter, which should not be any help in fronting one of bluegrass music’s most engaging outfits. But part of the reason the SteelDrivers are such an engaging band is the seemingly incongruous blend of soul and slink, blues and country, mountain coal and red dirt.
“I think that’s what moves people when they come to see us: the realness and rawness and edge,” says Rogers, who formed the SteelDrivers in 2005 with Bailey, Fleming, multi-instrumentalist Mike Henderson, and soulful singer (and now-acclaimed contemporary country artist) Chris Stapleton. That version of the SteelDrivers received three GRAMMY® nominations and won an audience that was surprised and initially saddened by the 2010 and 2011 departures of Stapleton and Henderson. But the entries of Nichols and virtuoso mandolin talent Truitt have created a SteelDrivers band that carries the gutbucket ethic of the original combo, but pleases in different ways. They took home the GRAMMY for Best Bluegrass Album for The Muscle Shoals Recordings at the 2016 awards.
Nichols, who initially felt an obligation to replicate Stapleton’s mighty vocal turns, emerged as a vocalist of distinction, as a monster acoustic guitarist and as a songwriting force who wrote or co-wrote five of Shoals Recordings’ 11 songs. Rogers stepped up her songwriting as well, and she has credits on all but one of the album’s remaining songs. The one outlier on The Muscle Shoals Recordings is “Drinkin’ Alone,” a romp penned by Jay Knowles and former SteelDriver Stapleton. Wait, check that…
“Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson will always be SteelDrivers,” Rogers says. “They aren’t in the band playing shows, but they are part of our sound, and part of our story.”
Truitt’s fluid mandolin added another virtuoso element to a group that is undergirded by Fleming’s upright bass and baritone harmonies.
“Mike is responsible for a lot of the emotion of the songs,” Nichols says. “He stands out more on this record vocally than he ever did before, and as a bass player he’s a big part of our sound. We don’t have a drummer, so he and I have to be the kick, snare, and high hat. He’s the backbone; I’m the hips.”
That’s not to say that this is all about swagger and sway. These Muscle Shoals Recordings hold much in the way of plaintive beauty. “Here She Goes,” written by Nichols and Dylan LeBlanc, is songwriting at its most honest—no posturing and no fronts. It’s a song about divorce, without blame: “If I were honest, I’d say she stayed too long,” Nichols sings, to a soundtrack aided by Jason Isbell, Nichols’ childhood friend and musical partner, who co-produced the track (and “Brother John”).
In the studio, the band kept pushing the tempo, perhaps to assuage the sadness and, perhaps, because it’s sometimes easier for master musicians to play with reckless abandon than with somber certainty.
“After we played it through, I spoke up and said, ‘Maybe it needs to be a bit faster,’” Rogers says. “Jason said, ‘Well, maybe we can just try harder.’ He was right, and we tried harder.”
Nichols and Isbell played together as teens when Nichols fronted Gulliver, a band that included bass man Jimbo Hart and drummer Ryan Tillery. When Nichols scored a major label deal with Mercury Records in 2006, he hit the road with Hart and Tillery. When Nichols exited Mercury, Hart and Tillery joined Isbell’s 400 Unit band.
Way back then, Gulliver worked with Jimmy Nutt, upon whose studio the SteelDrivers converged in late 2014 to make an uncommon and instantly identifiable album. Nutt cut his teeth at Rick Hall’s FAME studios, and Hall is the guy who produced “You Better Move On,” “Fancy,” “Slip Away,” and, come to think of it, Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” All that stuff is supposed to be a world removed from Nashville, from bluegrass, from banjos and mandolins. But the SteelDrivers place it all in close proximity. They make music born of collisions of traditions, from meldings of things assumed un-meldable.
“This stuff is all related,” Nichols says. “The note selection, the melodies, and the licks are the same. It’s just a different accent.”
Nichols and the SteelDrivers speak in their own accent, one that charms and sears and beguiles. This is a band like no other, by inclination but not by calculation. Nichols, Rogers, Bailey, Fleming, Truitt … Those of us who have listened all know where their souls are bound. Bound to triumph. Bound to rise. Bound to matter. Bound to resound. Bound to impact. Bound to roar and shimmy, to howl and heal. A damn good band, this one. If you don’t believe it, start around two minutes and ten seconds into “Long Way Down.” That’s the stuff, right there.
An acoustic band born in the land of tech innovation, Front Country was never going to be accepted as an authentic American roots band out of the gate. Cutting their teeth in progressive bluegrass jams in San Francisco’s Mission District and rehearsing in the East Bay, they learned to play roots music their own way, with the tools they had on hand. A mandolinist with a degree in composition and classical guitar. A guitarist trained in rock and world music. A bassist equally versed in jazz and bluegrass. A violinist with technique that could seamlessly hop between honky tonk and electropop. A female lead singer with grit and soul that was also a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. In a wood-paneled country dive bar in the shadow of the San Francisco skyline, Front Country forged a sound hell bent on merging the musical past with the future.
This West Coast outfit was a loose collection of musical misfits until 2012 and 2013 when Front Country gathered around a single microphone at the RockyGrass and Telluride festivals, and won first prize in those prestigious band contests that once launched the careers of the Dixie Chicks, Greensky Bluegrass and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The contest wins bolstered their confidence in their unique mix of original songwriting, vocal harmonies and instrumental virtuosity, steeling their resolve to take a leap of faith and become a full time touring band.
With the release of their debut full-length album Sake of the Sound in 2014, Front Country began the nose-grinding work of making their name as a national touring act. Still based in the San Francisco Bay Area, they would trek the 6,000+ mile circle around the U.S. for months at a time, introducing themselves for the first time to every room that would have them. Thanks to the glow of their contest wins, festivals around the U.S. caught wind and invited them to play for their large audiences, giving Front Country a crucial first break. Old Settlers in Austin, MerleFest in North Carolina, Wintergrass in Seattle, Strawberry in California and Grey Fox in New York, all took a chance on the promising new band and solidified Front Country’s hold on the imagination of progressive-leaning acoustic music fans.
If there was any one song from their debut album that they all agreed they had never heard the likes of before, it would have to be the title track “Sake of the Sound”. A pop song with a rock arrangement, played entirely on acoustic instruments. It was almost as if bluegrass instruments had been unearthed 200 years from now in a time capsule, and were re-purposed to make post-apocalyptic modern pop music. Front Country has been drawn more and more into this peculiar aesthetic, writing and arranging songs that are simultaneously intricate, intense and infectious. They’ve been called “Roots Pop”: the past is discernible with a wink and a nod, and the future is here.
Front Country’s sophomore release Other Love Songs is their Roots Pop opus. A graduation from mere concept to a high-speed rail line traveling at breakneck speed with the listener able to walk to the back of the train and look out at a distant but constant glimmer of the past. While their ultimate goal is musical space exploration, the technology of Front Country’s sound has evolved significantly in their five short years as a band, all while maintaining a tool kit of wooden string band instruments. Like a carpenter building a rocket ship, there is a whimsy to Front Country’s perspective that takes an active, imaginative listener to appreciate. It’s not a sound based on current trends of what any mainstream audience has asked for, it is a new perspective looking to find a new audience. Creating one’s own audience from the ground up is never an easy path, but if successful, several decades later, the reward is worth the risk and the journey is its own reward.
Other Love Songs is Front Country’s first record relying on lead singer Melody Walker’s songwriting, first and foremost. With 8 of the 12 tracks penned by Walker, and the two instrumentals composed by mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz, it is their most original body of work yet. Round out the intensely creative band arrangement style of guitarist Jacob Groopman, bassist Jeremy Darrow and five-string violinist Leif Karlstrom, and the synergy is electric. The two cover songs on the album are the poignant “Millionaire” by David Olney, and a swampy blues-rock reimagining of the Carter Family’s “Storms are on the Ocean”. All together, the majority of the songs are quite emotional in nature and tend toward relationship themes, sometimes with atwist, hence the title Other Love Songs.
The collection of original Other Love Songs on the album are “If Something Breaks”, “I Don’t Wanna Die Angry”, “Good Side”, “Undone”, “O Heartbreaker” and “Keep Travelin’”. These songs follow the lessons that everyone learns in their own personal evolution toward emotional maturity and vulnerability – in which all of us learn to break down toxic romantic fairy tales and write our own “Other Love Songs” that work for real people in the real world. Love works the best when we can accept ourselves and one another with all of our virtues and our flaws, and start creating our own unique path that works for us. Since music and love are borne of the same ether, it’s no surprise that Front Country’s musical path has taken the form of an “Other Love Song” all along, finding their own harmony that plays to the strengths of each member, and doesn’t worry about fitting into a mold.
For All Ages!
DOORS – The doors will open at 8pm and the show will begin at approximately 8:10pm. The beginning and end of a set is at the discretion of the performing act, although we contract them for a minimum set length.
SEATING – There is no seating available. Our concerts are STANDING ROOM ONLY.
PARKING – Please follow the signage and the directions of our parking lot attendants to find parking in our FREE concert parking lots.