[Rating: 4 stars]
First, the bad news (and somewhat old news by now): Chris Stapleton has left the SteelDrivers. The band has a new singer who will probably prove more than capable, as these music business veterans aren’t going to let a slacker front their band. But now that the group’s new CD, Reckless, is available, with Stapleton doing the singing, it may be difficult to listen to these songs sung in a live setting by anyone other than him.
Now that that’s out of the way…the SteelDrivers, while a band of well-known players, have always been a songwriter’s band, because of guitarist/vocalist Stapleton and multi-talented Mike Henderson. Both (especially Stapleton) have impressive writing resumes with artists from Lee Ann Womack to Kenny Chesney to the Dixie Chicks and on and on. So, while it would be nice if the band would really open up instrumentally and show us what they’re made of, everyone focuses on doing a great job of supporting the song. “Where Rainbows Never Die” features nice harmonies from Stapleton, Henderson and fiddler Tammy Rogers; the well-done “Midnight on the Mountain” is straight, almost reverentially, from the Bill Monroe/Flatt and Scruggs playbook; and “Angel of the Night” uses the Bob Dylan/Hendrix chord progression from “All Along the Watchtower” to give Rogers some room to saw, although she makes a couple questionable note choices that might have had some producers stopping the tape.
Stapleton, while known much more as a writer than a singer, nonetheless sings his butt off. He does a great job on “The Price,” with an anguished vocal about class separation that sounds like it’s coming from someone who’s truly lived it. And on the CD’s best cut, “You Put the Hurt on Me” – which should be a country radio single but probably won’t – he delivers great lines like “Missin’ you is harder than/This whiskey on my breath” like a man who really means it.
That brings up the subject of the writing end of this band in the future. Most of the material here is written by Stapleton and Henderson together, which might leave Henderson holding the pen for much of the next release. Whatever. What matters is that this is a really good record, and while it would have been nice to hear some instrumental breakdowns – especially from banjo player Richard Bailey, who is way understated – it’s nice to know that Nashville is capable of putting out something besides more bad pop. Produced by Luke Wooten, whose production on Leslie Satcher’s Love Letters was the high point of Nashville music in 2000. Highly recommended, especially since you probably won’t hear this band in this incarnation again.