Bad For You, the chart-topping fifth album from Nashville’s hard-edged bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, arrived after a period of triumph and adaptation. The band’s 2015 release, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, won the GRAMMYÒ award for ‘Best Bluegrass Album.”  In bluegrass and acoustic music circles, respect for this Nashville quintet is so strong that the win seemed somehow inevitable, like a box being checked off. For the band though, as well as its passionate audience of Steelheads, it was a much bigger deal. The GRAMMYÒ validated the vision and collective striving of a string band with a rock and soul heart. Industry recognition and better bookings followed. Then just when the follow-up album was coming together, vocalist and guitar player Gary Nichols decided he needed to go his own way.

It was a setback, to be sure. Negotiating the transition from the magisterial soul country voice of band co-founder Chris Stapleton to Nichols had taken work and perseverance, but it had led to the most cohesive, impactful Steeldrivers to date. With a second singer on his way out in eight years, there were questions about how to go forward, if they could at all. But this was a unique, highly resilient band, rooted in the kind of mutual respect that only many years of personal history can forge.

Richard Bailey (banjo), Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Mike Fleming (bass) and Brent Truitt (mandolin) have been musical colleagues and friends for more than three decades, which is to say nearly all of their adult lives. They were bringing their instrumental, vocal and songwriting skills to various bands, ad hoc gigs, picking parties and recording sessions long before The Steeldrivers first came together. That happened in 2005 when Nashville veteran Mike Henderson and Stapleton, a young gun on Music Row, had co-written a batch of songs that felt right for bluegrass instrumentation. Some casual get-togethers with Bailey, Fleming and Rogers led to a run of shows, a deal with historic Rounder Records and critical acclaim.

In a story now well-known, Stapleton hit a streak of rocket-ride success as a solo country artist, and the Steeldrivers resolved to continue on, maintaining the overall soul-grass feeling of that founding voice without hiring a clone. Henderson stepped aside as well, with many things on his plate. The band, made of sturdier stuff than one voice or part, called on Truitt to play mandolin. The search for a new singer after Gary Nichols was trickier. They wanted to keep their cards close to the vest, and they weren’t looking for a mainstream bluegrass singer. It wasn’t easy, but one day, says Tammy Rogers, “My daughter found him on YouTube.” This designee was bound to be unconventional, and he was, a 25-year-old rock and roll singer from Berea, KY named Kelvin Damrell.

“I was pretty fresh to bluegrass,” Kelvin says. “The only bluegrass I’d heard was couch pickin’ at my grandparents’ house, and I wasn’t into it, to be completely honest. I was a rocker. Cinderella was my favorite band before I met these guys.” But that kind of angular perspective was more in tune with The Steeldrivers than he could have known, and his initiation into bluegrass infused a convert’s zeal into his performances. “Everybody in the band were virtuosos,” he says. “And I’d never seen that side of bluegrass. I thought it was just that old foot stomping traditional stuff, so I was surprised to hear this. And I knew I had a lot of work to do to keep up.”

While Steeldrivers 3.0 rehearsed and started playing shows, Rogers, the band’s dynamic fiddle player and harmony vocalist, leaned hard into developing new material. “Having been known as a songwriting band, I felt like it was still what the band needed to do,” she says. Indeed, original, band-written songs were as much a part of the Steeldrivers origin story as its infectious grooves and its R&B leanings. Those first rehearsals and shows with Stapleton/Henderson songs included “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” (which was covered by pop star Adele), “Sticks That Made Thunder” and other certified band standards.

Rogers surveyed material she had going back a few years and called some of the co-writers, such as Jerry Salley and Liz Hengber, who’d contributed songs to the original Steeldrivers eponymous debut, to Reckless in 2010, to Hammer Down in 2012 and to the Muscle Shoals Album of 2015. The process of sifting through 50 or 60 prospect songs was of course influenced by Kelvin’s taste, sound and phrasing. “There are songs here that aren’t even bluegrass to me,” he says. “They’re rock and roll.” He cites the title track “Bad For You” as a prime example. “Banjo is the only bluegrass thing about it,” he says.

That album-opening title track churns slowly like a paddle-wheel steamer negotiating a shallow muddy river. Kelvin’s voice rises and howls with a poignant desperation. Tammy’s fiddle carves lonesome answering lines, and the 15-year SteelDriver tradition of dark, jagged-edged goth-grass feels intact and heading for new places. Then in “The Bartender (Load The Gun)” the main character wrestles with his role. Is he a friend-in-need or an accessory to a crime? It’s a question perfectly suited to the Steeldrivers’ unsparing blues. Up next, “12 O’Clock Blues” takes us inside the haunted anxiety of insomnia. Written by Rogers with longtime musical companion Kieran Kane and his duo partner Rayna Gellert, it became Kelvin’s favorite for its groove shockwaves and its depiction of a shared human experience.

There are brighter offerings as well, including the pure ardor of the project lead-off #1 single “I Choose You” and the Cajun-inflected country bounce of “Glad I’m Gone,” in which the girl doesn’t come back and the singer is damn glad about it. Yet the emotional seriousness of the whole collection is firmly established by “Falling Man,” a song inspired by the breathtaking photo of an unidentified victim of 9/11 “caught in a frame” and thus made immortal. “I’ll never die/I’ll never land/Call me what I am/A falling man,” sings Kelvin in his most vulnerable performance, with Rogers in sympathetic harmony. It leaves us with chills.

That a quintet could sound so consistent over time, while adding new repertoire and even new lead singers, is a testament to a classically Nashville way of thinking. “I always say we just happen to use traditional instruments, but we’re really a singer-songwriter band,” Rogers says. One regularly hears the edict to “serve the song” among top tier players in Music City. But because this is bluegrass, and this is the Steeldrivers, the truth is that often, serving the song means you gotta play like hell.

They say the only thing consistent about change is…well, that it changes. Whether through design or destiny, that’s a precept the SteelDrivers know all too well.

Throughout their career –one that encompasses four highly acclaimed albums and any number of awards and accolades –the band has demonstrated the ability to adapt to change with unwavering persistence. Their’s is a lingering legacy defined by quality and consistency. It’s one in which they’ve never stopped looking forward, successfully marshalling their resources for wherever that trajectory takes them.

Ultimately, it’s all about the music. “Our dedication and determination remain intact,” says singer, songwriter and fiddler Tammy Rogers. “We honor our older music by always putting our focus on the songs. Some people describe our music as being bluegrass based, but the fact is, we’re not bound to any one regimen. I liken us to what the Rolling Stones would sound like if they played banjos, fiddles and mandolins – it’s that rock-n-roll edge played on traditional instruments. I don’t know if that’s true, but we are primarily a band that’s centered around songwriting and also just happens to have a bluegrass background.”

That persistent push could be called the key to SteelDrivers’ success. Each step in their journey has created a new chapter, one that finds them building on the past but consolidating their strengths as they build for the future.

That’s also been the case since the beginning, when Rogers, multi-instrumentalist Mike Henderson, bass player Mike Fleming, banjo player Richard Bailey, and singer/guitarist Chris Stapleton first convened after a series of songwriting sessions between Henderson and Stapleton. What began as a casual get-together to jam in the late summer of 2005 became a fully committed band that signed with Rounder Records in 2007.

They released their eponymous debut album at the beginning of 2008, garnering a GRAMMY® nomination for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for one of the songs in that set, “Blue Side of the Mountain.” That honor was followed two years later, when they received two more nominations for Reckless, their sophomore set — one for Best Bluegrass Album and another for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals courtesy of its song “Where Rainbows Never Die.”When Stapleton left the fold for a highly successful solo career in April 2010, the band closed one chapter and began another anew, while literally never missing a beat.

Singer/guitarist Gary Nichols, a highly accredited artist in his own right, was brought on-board for the recording of the band’s third album, 2012‘s Hammer Down, which subsequently climbed all the way up to number one on the Billboard Bluegrass charts, their highest placement yet. Nevertheless, the real journey had just begun. When Henderson left the band at the end of 2011, musician and producer Brent Truitt was brought in as his replacement. If there was any proof needed that the momentum had been maintained, The SteelDrivers‘ highly acclaimed fourth album, 2015‘s The Muscle Shoals Recording (featuring guest contributions from Nichols’ onetime bandmate Jason Isbell), garnered the group that long elusive GRAMMY® win with a notable nod for Best Bluegrass Album. In addition, it garnered three IBMA nominations — Album of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Long Way Down”), Songwriter of the Year (for Rogers) and Best Liner Notes (for writer Peter Cooper).

Still, one more major development was left to come. Nichols departed in August 2017, leaving yet another void the band was left to fill. Once again, the group rose to the challenge, selecting Kentucky native Kelvin Damrell after Rogers‘ daughter spotted him singing on a YouTube video. He fit in just fine, and today again, The SteelDrivers’ saga continues unabated. Part of the lure is undoubtably due to the freedom each musician gets to express themselves without any reservation, even as the group maintains the consistency of its sound. Rogers, a former member of the all-star Dead Reckoning music stable, is widely recognized as one of the most versatile and expressive fiddlers on the scene today. Truitt and Bailey are certified string benders who take their respective instruments to new levels of innovation and expertise. Damrell’s vocals and fretwork add a fresh voice to the mix, while Fleming continues to anchor it all with rock solid rhythm and a firm foundation.

It’s a sound The Tennessean once described as “Gutsy, gritty bluegrass songs.” The Philadelphia Inquirer put it even more succinctly. “You can call it power-bluegrass or country soul, but whatever you call it, Nashville’s Steeldrivers have bushels of it.” In fact, The SteelDrivers’ success lies in their consistent growth and ability to reinvent their regimen.

It’s also nurtured the various influences that each member brings to the band. With the emphasis on song structure as to parceling out their parameters, elements of Americana, country, blues, rock and soul all enter the equation. Yet their consistent standing at the IBMA awards –which began when they were voted Best Emerging Artist — testifies to the fact that they’ve been able to maintain a fierce following even while growing their audiences at every interval.

The band plays approximately 75 shows a year, including major festival appearances at Bonnaroo, Merlefest, Wintergrass, Bristol Rhythm and Roots and Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It’s their populist approach that finds their devotees — self-proclaimed “SteelHeads”– traveling hundreds of miles to see them in repeat performances. “It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since our first album,” Rogers muses. “And yet, even with all the change and transition, we still have the same joy and enthusiasm that we did in the beginning.

Even as the trajectory changes, the story continues to unfold.”

Nashville, Tennessee is a nexus – a point where tradition and innovation intersect, where commerce collides with art.It may be the only town around where salaried songwriters and full-time session musicians are as common as accountants and schoolteachers. Music is the product, and the factories line the street, from the swank Music Row mini-high-rises to the low-slung Sylvan Park bungalows. And only Nashville could give birth to a band like the SteelDrivers: a group of seasoned veterans –each distinguished in his or her own right, each valued in the town’s commercial community – who are seizing an opportunity to follow their hearts to their souls’ reward. In doing so, they are braiding their bluegrass roots with new threads of their own design, bringing together country, soul, and other contemporary influences to create an unapologetic hybrid that is old as the hills but fresh as the morning dew. This is new music with the old feeling. SteelDrivers fan Vince Gill describes the band’s fusion as simply “an incredible combination.”

Since the release of The SteelDrivers (2008) and Reckless (2010), The SteelDrivers have been nominated for three Grammys, four IBMA awards and the Americana Music Association’s New Artist of the Year. They were presented the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for Emerging Artist of the Year in 2009. That same year the band spent a week in Georgia as part of the cast in the movie “Get Low”. The movie, that starred Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray, featured a soundtrack that included four tunes by The ‘Drivers. In 2011 the English pop star Adele began performing the SteelDriver song “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” in her live performances. Her opinion of The SteelDrivers is: “They’re a blues, country, bluegrass, swagger band and they are brilliant.” They have been invited to perform on numerous radio and TV shows ranging from The Grand Ole Opry to NPR’s Mountain Stage to the Conan O’Brien show.

Right there, at two minutes and ten seconds into the first song, “Long Way Down.” The part where Gary Nichols sings, “Girl, we both know where your soul is bound.” Only he bleeds it as much as he sings it. He sounds murderous, maniacal. Her soul is bound for nothing skyward, for nothing heavenly. And he’s fine with that.

Richard Bailey’s banjo plays funky, little Kentucky-goes-to-Memphis rolls. Tammy Rogers’ fiddle soars. Brent Truitt’s mandolin chops time, and Mike Fleming’s bass pounds the downbeat. And all that is righteous and right-on. Elevated, even. But Nichols—he lets loose something the opposite of righteousness. It’s a howl, full of hurt and anger and life. Starts on the highest E note that 99.9% of male singers can hit, then ascends into a sweet falsetto, and then opens up like the gates of Hell, into a reeling screech.

“That made me dizzy for a second,” Nichols says, remembering the moment he sang the line. “Really, I almost passed out. There are certain lines in SteelDrivers songs that require a little bit of Wilson Pickett.”

Nichols knows about Wilson Pickett, who recorded “Mustang Sally” at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, less than three miles from Jimmy Nutt’s NuttHouse, where the SteelDrivers recorded these MusclShoals Recordings. Nichols is from Muscle Shoals. He grew up as a guitar slinger and a soul shouter, which should not be any help in fronting one of bluegrass music’s most engaging outfits. But part of the reason the SteelDrivers are such an engaging band is the seemingly incongruous blend of soul and slink, blues and country, mountain coal and red dirt.

“I think that’s what moves people when they come to see us: the realness and rawness and edge,” says Rogers, who formed the SteelDrivers in 2005 with Bailey, Fleming, multi-instrumentalist Mike Henderson, and soulful singer (and now-acclaimed contemporary country artist) Chris Stapleton. That version of the SteelDrivers received three GRAMMY® nominations and won an audience that was surprised and initially saddened by the 2010 and 2011 departures of Stapleton and Henderson. But the entries of Nichols and virtuoso mandolin talent Truitt have created a SteelDrivers band that carries the gutbucket ethic of the original combo, but pleases in different ways. They took home the GRAMMY for Best Bluegrass Album for The Muscle Shoals Recordings at the 2016 awards.

Nichols, who initially felt an obligation to replicate Stapleton’s mighty vocal turns, emerged as a vocalist of distinction, as a monster acoustic guitarist and as a songwriting force who wrote or co-wrote five of Shoals Recordings’ 11 songs. Rogers stepped up her songwriting as well, and she has credits on all but one of the album’s remaining songs. The one outlier on The Muscle Shoals Recordings is “Drinkin’ Alone,” a romp penned by Jay Knowles and former SteelDriver Stapleton. Wait, check that…

“Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson will always be SteelDrivers,” Rogers says. “They aren’t in the band playing shows, but they are part of our sound, and part of our story.”

Truitt’s fluid mandolin added another virtuoso element to a group that is undergirded by Fleming’s upright bass and baritone harmonies.

“Mike is responsible for a lot of the emotion of the songs,” Nichols says. “He stands out more on this record vocally than he ever did before, and as a bass player he’s a big part of our sound. We don’t have a drummer, so he and I have to be the kick, snare, and high hat. He’s the backbone; I’m the hips.”

That’s not to say that this is all about swagger and sway. These Muscle Shoals Recordings hold much in the way of plaintive beauty. “Here She Goes,” written by Nichols and Dylan LeBlanc, is songwriting at its most honest—no posturing and no fronts. It’s a song about divorce, without blame: “If I were honest, I’d say she stayed too long,” Nichols sings, to a soundtrack aided by Jason Isbell, Nichols’ childhood friend and musical partner, who co-produced the track (and “Brother John”).

In the studio, the band kept pushing the tempo, perhaps to assuage the sadness and, perhaps, because it’s sometimes easier for master musicians to play with reckless abandon than with somber certainty.

“After we played it through, I spoke up and said, ‘Maybe it needs to be a bit faster,’” Rogers says. “Jason said, ‘Well, maybe we can just try harder.’ He was right, and we tried harder.”

Nichols and Isbell played together as teens when Nichols fronted Gulliver, a band that included bass man Jimbo Hart and drummer Ryan Tillery. When Nichols scored a major label deal with Mercury Records in 2006, he hit the road with Hart and Tillery. When Nichols exited Mercury, Hart and Tillery joined Isbell’s 400 Unit band.

Way back then, Gulliver worked with Jimmy Nutt, upon whose studio the SteelDrivers converged in late 2014 to make an uncommon and instantly identifiable album. Nutt cut his teeth at Rick Hall’s FAME studios, and Hall is the guy who produced “You Better Move On,” “Fancy,” “Slip Away,” and, come to think of it, Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” All that stuff is supposed to be a world removed from Nashville, from bluegrass, from banjos and mandolins. But the SteelDrivers place it all in close proximity. They make music born of collisions of traditions, from meldings of things assumed un-meldable.

“This stuff is all related,” Nichols says. “The note selection, the melodies, and the licks are the same. It’s just a different accent.”

Nichols and the SteelDrivers speak in their own accent, one that charms and sears and beguiles. This is a band like no other, by inclination but not by calculation. Nichols, Rogers, Bailey, Fleming, Truitt … Those of us who have listened all know where their souls are bound. Bound to triumph. Bound to rise. Bound to matter. Bound to resound. Bound to impact. Bound to roar and shimmy, to howl and heal. A damn good band, this one. If you don’t believe it, start around two minutes and ten seconds into “Long Way Down.” That’s the stuff, right there.