My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Gary Nichols

Album Review: The SteelDrivers – ‘Hammer Down’

steeldriversThe 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.

Grade: A

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.

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Changing the face but not the name

Gary Nichols

This week’s news that the great bluegrass-based group the SteelDrivers have changed lead singers after one acclaimed album from the distinctive sound of songwriter Chris Stapleton (who wants to return to a life concentrating on writing) to former Mercury artist Gary Nichols was a little disappointing. Musicians would probably disagree with this, but to me the lead singer is the most distinguishing feature of any band’s identity – and changing the face at the front seems to change the dynamic for better or worse.

One-time hitmakers Lonestar have a new album out soon with a new lead singer, but do not seem to be attracting much attention with it. They in fact started out with two lead singers (John Rich and Richie MacDonald), and when John Rich left to try a solo career (which flopped, leading to his finding success as half of Big & Rich) that did not cause any problems for the band, who went on to release their biggest hit, ‘Amazed’. But when Richie left the band a couple of years ago, the group had already passed its commercial peak. Richie’s solo career has not been particularly successful, and although I haven’t heard Lonestar’s material with their new lead singer yet, I would be surprised if it brought them back to the top.

One band to have gone through various changes of personnel, but for whom real success was associated with the original lead singer was Highway 101, a favorite of mine from the late 80s. Fronted by Paulette Carlson, the group released three fine albums and a string of top 10 hits including several #1s between 1987 and 1990. Paulette then decided she wanted to go it alone, and released a solo album. This proved to be a bad move for her as her new record was a complete flop. The band meanwhile recruited a new lead singer, Nikki Nelson who had a strong, commercial voice, but one with less personality than Paulette’s. The new line-up had a few hits in the arly 90s, but ones which peaked lower on the charts than their earlier material. In 1996 Paulette rejoined the group and they released the appropriately entitled Reunited, but their time had passed and they could not reignite the flame of their glory days. They split again, and the band tried with a third lead singer, with even less success. I understand they are currently performing with Nikki Nelson again. This was a case study where the original combination of lead singer and band was the magical one, and subsequent reinventions just didn’t work.

Chris Stapleton

Sometimes switching the lead singer works out. The Dixie Chicks’ early records featured two lead singers (Laura Lynch and Robin Lee Macy) who were both eventually discarded. It was only when Natalie Maines joined that the band got their major label deal, and proceeded to mass success in the late 90s. Even today, after they have fallen from grace with country radio, the Court Yard Hounds side venture of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the founder members of the Chicks, without Natalie, seems unlikely to attract the same level of support of their most recent album with her. Since the other two own the rights to the name, it is interesting that they decided to drop it for this project.

These last two cases do involve someone with a particularly distinctive voice which served to mark the band out. A similar case involving a less successful group is Trick Pony and its lead singer Heidi Newfield. When Heidi left to go solo, the band initially tried to find a new lead singer, but Heidi’s replacement Aubrey Collins left before any new music could be released, and the surviving band members eventually called it a day. In this case some lead vocals had been taken by one of the guys in the band, but Heidi was the dominating presence at the center of the group.

In previous generations, however, changes of personnel were less disruptive. The Statler Brothers replaced Lew De Witt with Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys have been going since 1945 with many changes. However, these cases did not involve changing a sole lead singer. The pioneering Carter Family consisted of A P Carter, wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle in the 1930s; later on Maybelle continued the group with her daughters. Bluegrass groups seem generally to be formed around an inspirational instrumentalist rather than the singer, and have frequently featured changes in lead vocalist. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have changed personnel over the years, but retained a strong musical identity regardless.

Which of today’s groups could survive a new face at the front?