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.
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…
Truitt’s fluid mandolin added another virtuoso element to a group that is undergirded by Fleming’s upright bass and baritone harmonies.
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”).
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.
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