Interview: The SteelDrivers Tap Old Friends, New Collaborators to Create New Album, ‘Bad for You’
Three years ago, the SteelDrivers were in the midst of making a new record, the follow-up to 2015's Grammy Award-winning The Muscle Shoals Recordings. "We had cut six tracks, and we were so excited," fiddle player and founding bandmate Tammy Rogers tells The Boot. "And then, unfortunately, we lost Gary [Nichols], so we weren't able to finish it."
Seven-year SteelDrivers member Nichols' 2017 departure from the group brought their album-making process to a standstill. Driven in equal parts by the bandmates' individual virtuosity and collective synergy, the SteelDrivers' sound couldn't move forward until they found someone to step in as vocalist. Replacing Nichols was no easy task, but the SteelDrivers had done it before: Nichols himself began his tenure with the band after filling the spot of Chris Stapleton -- another immensely difficult-to-follow act -- in 2010.
Eventually, the group found their replacement in the unlikely form of 25-year-old Kelvin Damrell, a rock 'n' roll and metal fan with little to no experience as a professional musician, let alone as a bluegrass musician. Bizarrely, the band got to know Damrell after Rogers' daughter saw a YouTube video of him singing a Stapleton song.
"Just his natural vocal ability [stood out to me]," Rogers recalls of the first time she heard Damrell sing, adding that the young artist found a way to make a Stapleton tune sound original, not like a copy. That, she explains, was exactly what the SteelDrivers were looking for in a vocalist.
"He's not trying to sound like Stapleton, or like Gary -- he just has that natural quality in his voice," she continues. "He also kind of has all those natural moves that you can't really teach. He just has it."
Despite Damrell's raw talent, the SteelDrivers didn't think he was ready to launch into a full album cycle just yet. "It was just too tall an order to get him up to speed," Rogers explains. "Because he'll be the first to tell you that he had never been in a professional studio before.
"I mean, all the rest of us have honestly been doing this longer than he's been alive. We've got thousands of hours playing, touring, recording," she continues. "So it wasn't really fair to ask him to step into that situation without some time to get comfortable with us as people, as musicians, with the band."
That meant, however, that they couldn't put their album out as scheduled; in fact, fans would have to wait another few years.
"I think it was a smart decision," Rogers concludes. "I mean, it may not have been a popular decision, because I know our fans, and we'd been talking about a new record for two years by that point. But it was the right decision."
So the SteelDrivers waited, slowly building the track list for their 2020 release, Bad for You, out Friday (Feb. 7). As it happens, Rogers -- who co-wrote 10 of the new album's 11 tracks -- teamed up with quite a few familiar faces to write for the project, and some of its songs were written years before the album's release.
"I had longstanding relationships with Jerry Salley and Liz Hengber from the last couple records. And the Chris Stapleton thing we wrote, I think, 11 years ago, I think, in 2009," she explains, referencing "Glad I'm Gone," a song she co-wrote with Stapleton and Dean Dillon.
"I was just listening back through some old songs, and was like, 'Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.' I played it for the guys and they really liked it," Rogers recalls, explaining that the song's groove stood out in a way the band thought would provide some variety to the album as a whole. "That one just kind of popped in a really fun way, and we were immediately on board with that."
Another previous SteelDrivers co-writer, John Paul White, returns on Bad for You -- this time as a first-time collaborator for Rogers, and also as a guest vocalist and co-producer. "I felt like through his association with Gary, he was almost a silent SteelDriver. His song and melodic sense were, I felt, really impactful on the songs of his that we'd recorded. But I had just known him as a session player," Rogers continues.
Rogers and White had known each other for quite a while, so when it came time to write songs for the new project, she got in touch. White immediately agreed to contribute, and the pair wound up co-writing "Innocent Man," a song that White came in and cut with the SteelDrivers.
"When he steps behind a microphone, you can see that he is just absolutely in command of what he's doing," Rogers reflects of White. "It was really awesome and inspiring to have him there, both to see him work and to have him participate in that way."
Rogers' work in writing for Bad for You yielded her an entirely new partnership, too: "One of [my collaborators], Thomm Jutz, has probably become my most frequent collaborator!" she exclaims.
"That just happened really organically: We were seated at the SESAC Awards together probably three years ago, and we'd just been chatting and realized we knew a lot of the same people," Rogers shares of Jutz. They struck up a friendship and, eventually, began writing together.
"We probably write anywhere from two to three to four times a month now," she continues. But considering that both she and Jutz had long careers in the songwriting industry before they ever met, it's surprising that their paths hadn't crossed until recently.
"I know! It's kinda crazy. But I'm glad that we met when we did, and going forward, we'll have a good catalog," Rogers adds. "Hopefully if people need any songs, they'll look us up."
Both in lineup shifts and songwriting, the SteelDrivers are known for, again and again, doing the impossible. They found a way to bring in a lead vocalist that could follow first Stapleton, then Nichols -- who could keep the band cohesive, but still add in some of his own signature energy. And behind the scenes, Rogers continues to find new songwriting inspirations and partnerships, decades into the business.
"I'm always in my mind thinking, 'Okay, what can be different about this while still remaining a SteelDrivers sound?'" she says of the album-making process. On Bad for You, the band once again re-invents themselves, while still keeping their musical core intact.
"I'm always looking to keep pushing the musical journey, if that makes sense, while still maintaining our identity," Rogers reflects.
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