The Muscle Shoals Recordings
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The Nashville based SteelDrivers have always infused their string band bluegrass with dabs of soul, blues, folk and country. So, when lead singer/guitarist Gary Nichols suggested they migrate to his Muscle Shoals hometown to record their fourth release, it was a logical next step in the band’s evolution. The result though sounds less like a leap into a different style than another solid SteelDrivers set that could have been recorded anywhere.
The greasy Southern rock and soul that informed so many of the great artists who have taken a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals to lather up some of that town’s mojo (the Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and dozens of others) isn’t particularly emphasized on this session. There aren’t R&B horns or swampy keyboards, slinky drums or even any percussion. Rather, this is the SteelDrivers doing what they do best; slinging out rugged, earthy bluegrass with guts, grit and enough attitude to give their rootsy strumming an exciting edge. In that sense it seems like a missed opportunity since bathing their already strong R&B impulses in the Alabama waters invites all sorts of enticing expectations that never materialize.
Regardless, these eleven tracks unspool in a brisk 37 minutes and show the talented quintet to be one of the finest purveyors of contemporary roots Americana. Unplugged mandolin, bass, guitar, banjo and Tammy Rogers’ ever present fiddle intertwine with remarkable ease. They leave plenty of room for Gary Nichols’ tough, soulful vocals that straddle the worlds of soul and backwoods country with remarkable aplomb. Muscle Shoals native son Jason Isbell (an old school chum of Nichols) swings by to contribute acoustic slide guitar on two tracks and add some star power to the liner notes.
Even with the picking talent on display, the SteelDrivers are decidedly about songs, generally abandoning the lightning riffs and shredding frets that characterize their peers. Tunes such as “Hanging Around” boast hooks and choruses rare for this genre and “Six Feet Away” tells the tragic story of a loved one killed by a drunk driver. Most of the material would make impressive singer-songwriter fare which shows the talents of this quintet go beyond their instrumental dexterity.
The album’s title implies a wider expansion of the SteelDrivers’ already elastic sound that doesn’t appear, yet the group has rarely sounded more focused or passionate. That makes The Muscle Shoals Recordings another notable entry into the group’s already distinctive catalog.