The SteelDrivers are back with a new collection of acoustic tunes, as well as another personnel change, as Brent Truitt takes over as mandolinist from departing founding member Mike Henderson. Hammer Down, which was produced by The SteelDrivers themselves along with Luke Wooten, follows the same basic template as the band’s previous two efforts. But while I felt that Reckless was a slightly weaker collection than their 2008 eponymous debut, Hammer Down more than holds its own when compared with that first album.
Every song on the album was co-written by either a present or former SteelDriver, and lead vocalist Gary Nichols’ gruff but soulful voice is nicely complemented by the harmonies of fiddle player Tammy Rogers and bassist Mike Fleming. Many of the songs have a Celtic flavor to them, sounding a lot like some of the recordings that The Chieftains made with a variety of Nashville artists. This is most apparent on the songs with dark subject matter, like the opening track “Shallow Grave”:
I buried my love with a silver spade
Hid her down in a shallow grave
Can’t keep love in the cold, cold ground
Nothin’ in the earth can hold her down
Though the mournful lyrics suggest that “Shallow Grave” is a murder ballad, the tune is suprisingly upbeat. It is never revealed why the victim was killed.
My two favorite songs are “How Long Have I Been Your Fool”, which was written by Tammy Rogers and Al Anderson along with former SteelDrivers lead vocalist Chris Stapleton and the closing track “When I’m Gone”, another Stapleton co-write, this time with former band member Mike Henderson. With a different arrangement, “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” might have been a mainstream hit ten years ago; it would have sounded right at home on a Patty Loveless album.
“When You Don’t Come Home” is about a confrontation at gunpoint between an errant husband and a fed-up wife, the type of song that would make Loretta Lynn proud. As good as it is, the Tammy Rogers and Gary Nichols penned tune is the only song on the album that doesn’t quite work. Rogers’ voice is prominent in the mix as Nichols’ throughout the track, but this song, written from the female point of view, would have worked much better as a Rogers solo. The lyrics just don’t make sense coming from a male vocalist. That, however, is a minor complaint. The only other fault I can find with the collection is its brevity. I’ve become accustomed to albums that are 12, 13 or more tracks long, and anything less, such as as this lean 10-track collection that clocks in at just under 35 minutes, leaves me feeling a little cheated. It does, however, leave me wanting more and perhaps that was the intent. Whereas I played Reckless a few times and then forgot about it, I’ve been playing this album almost non-stop for the past week and I haven’t grown tired of it yet. I highly recommend it.
P.S. I’d also like to give a shout-out to our fellow blogger Juli Thanki of Engine 145, who did a superb job writing the album’s liner notes.