Interview: The SteelDrivers Find ‘a Whole Different Vibe’ on ‘The Muscle Shoals Recordings’
Sometimes getting creative means changing things up. For their newest album, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, Grammy-nominated bluegrass band the SteelDrivers decided to head to (as you may guess from the album's title) Muscle Shoals, Ala.
"That whole area is a whole different vibe than here in Nashville, where we recorded [our] first three [albums]," the SteelDrivers' fiddler Tammy Rogers tells The Boot. "I don't want to say that it's slower paced or lazy ... There's just a different feel, and it just kind of put us on a different type of schedule in a way. We weren't like, 'Okay, up at the crack of dawn, and we gotta get this done.'
"Sometimes in Nashville, it seems like we have to adhere to a commercial kind of Nashville schedule," she adds. "It was really nice to go down there, take a deep breath and relax a little bit and just try to soak up the 'cool' factor down there."
The "Muscle Shoals sound" that began its course in the 1960s has inspired countless artists from numerous genres, the SteelDrivers now included. The five-piece group -- lead singer and guitarist Gary Nichols, who is a Muscle Shoals native; Rogers; bassist Mike Fleming; banjo player Richard Bailey and mandolin player Brent Truitt -- recorded their newest project, which was released in mid-June, at the area's NuttHouse Recording Studios.
"There's definite vocal influences," Rogers says of how Muscle Shoals plays into the album. "We didn't add drums ... We didn't add electric instruments like you would think of ... but I feel and hear the influences all over the album."
All 11 of the tracks on The Muscle Shoals Recordings are newly recorded, but a few of the tunes date back almost a decade. Rogers herself penned three of the album's tunes specifically for the new project, but another one of her contributions, "Ashes of Yesterday," was written in 2006 with former SteelDrivers member Mike Henderson ... and it was originally written for Lee Ann Womack. Womack ended up not cutting the track, and Rogers forgot about it, but it popped out to her as she was scanning through her catalog of songs, and after her bandmates heard it, they decided to cut it for the record.
"Ashes of Yesterday" also features a special guest: Jason Isbell, who happens to be a childhood friend of Nichols. The artist contributed slide guitar to that song, as well as to "Brother John," and also co-produced two tracks.
"I had never met Jason until he came into the studio with us, but I was so excited," Rogers recalls. "I was such a huge fan of [Isbell's 2013 album] Southeastern that I was just tickled silly when Gary was like, 'Yeah, I'll call him!'"
Although Isbell is getting ready to release his own new album, Something More Than Free, on July 17, Rogers reveals that he dedicated himself fully to the collaborations.
"He was just really present and there ... And he stayed with it. We sent mixes of the two songs that he co-produced with us, and he signed off on the mixes," she continues. "It wasn't just like showing up for the day and forgetting about it; he was invested in it."
Something that the SteelDrivers didn't change for their new album, however, is their tradition of recording, as Rogers puts it, "as live as possible."
"We don't typically do a lot of overdubbing or have a lot of guests on the tracks; pretty much what you hear on the record, we can recreate live," she explains. "A few times, I'll sack some fiddle parts or add a viola and make it sound like a string section, so obviously I can't do that live, but we don't do a whole lot of additional tracks that we can't pull off live.
"... It's really, and always kind of has been, a big part of our thing," Rogers adds. "What you hear is what you get."
The Muscle Shoals Recordings debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart after its release -- an achievement that "absolutely thrilled" Rogers, but one that she and the rest of the SteelDrivers don't take for granted.
"To be four records into a career with a band, you always wonder: Are you doing something that's going to capture people's imagination? Are you going to keep them there and interested?" Rogers muses. "You see lots of bands that sell a lot on their first record or second record, but then they start declining because people are like, 'Well, it sounds just like [this record], or it's the same formula as they did on the other record.'"
Still, being four albums and 10 years into a career together does have its advantages, as the band has discovered.
"I think we've certainly learned to trust each other and really give ourselves room to experiment a little bit," Rogers says. "That's what the band was always based on anyway, was having an edge, having a little grit to the sound. In a lot of ways, I don't know [that] we've changed our approach at all; in one sense, that's what's kept the band really consistent through member changes ...
"Hopefully we've allowed ourselves to experiment a little bit, branch out and grow and continue to explore a musical path -- not trying to recreate the first album, second album," she adds. "Doing something new, trying to bring something fresh to the table each time -- to me, that's our job. I think the overall attitude of the band has remained pretty consistent."
Angela Stefano also contributed to this story.