Growing up on the outskirts of town in the heart of North Dakota, there are things that bring on the sweet pang of nostalgia for me that might seem a tad peculiar to some. Hank Williams voice calls up memories of learning how to waltz with my dad. The drawl of an auctioneer sounds like home. So this week, with the looming fear of graduation and the “real world” feeling particularly strong, I figured I would write a review about one of the albums that has been serving as a sort of musical security blanket.
The SteelDrivers are a hybrid of bluegrass and soul, combining all of the crowd-pleasing qualities of dirty bluegrass (quick tempos, rollicking fiddle, and twangy vocals) whilst adding an unabashed honesty and poetic quality in their lyrics that push this band beyond the confines of this genre. I had the pleasure of seeing The SteelDrivers perform at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and was impressed at their flawless harmonies, technical capability, and truly humble stage presence.
Hammer Down, their junior release, truly shows off their affinity for heart-wrenching harmonies, lyrical intensity, and thumping instrumentals that would inspire anyone to kick up their heels. The album starts off with “Shallow Grave,” a catchy tune with hard-hitting violin and a story of a love lost. The tracks continue to progress in their theme of what one might call “dysfunctional” relationships. The theme culminates in the darkest song on the album, “I’ll Be There.” The piece is an exploration into a sound that is unquestionably different from the rest of their work and shows their capability to add depth, to evolve. This melancholy tune showcases Gary Nichols’ soulful voice as he croons, “I’ll be the words stuck in your head, over and over the last ones you’ve said.” It is the vengeful and foreboding story of a lover that promises to haunt, to never be forgotten. Tammy Rogers’ violin line works in tandem with the lyrics, taking on the presence of the lingering lover, as she plays what sounds like a devil’s dance. It should come as no surprise that John Paul White, part of the duo “The Civil Wars,” was a co-writer on this piece.
Although this album could be characterized as considerably heavy, with heartbreak and revenge as its main themes, it isn’t all doom and gloom for Hammer Down. The SteelDrivers drive home upbeat tunes like “Wearin’ A Hole” that could put any good old boy into a wistful mood as Nichols and Rogers sing, “I’m wearin’ a hole in a honky tonk floor, I like the feel of my heels sliding over the boards.” “Hell on Wheels” is a quick-paced, feverish song that could have anyone doing a Texas two-step as they hear the story of a girl run wild.
The album overall is controlled, technically sound, and evocative. What’s more is that it is honest and pure, a quality that I crave more than anything in the music I listen to.