With multiple Grammy nominations under their collective waistbands, and a win for Bluegrass Album of the Year for their latest, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, expectations are always high for The SteelDrivers. Almost five years since their latest was released, and with a third lead singer now in the fold—having previously featured Chris Stapleton and Gary Nichols—likely no shortage of doubters are waiting for the group to stumble.
It doesn’t happen here with Bad For You, the band’s fifth long player. Singer Kelvin Damrell is neither Stapleton nor Nichols, but retains the bluesy grittiness that has always been the group’s vocal trademark. Smoothly executed, his leads are raw and passionate, allowing the group to retain their uniqueness within a genre increasingly slick and generic. Heck, he’s from Berea, Kentucky, the hometown of Dale Ann Bradley: you just know he is as mountain as rock.
The SteelDrivers have always been an instrumentally stunning group, and that also hasn’t altered over the years. Tammy Rogers (fiddle, viola, and octave violin), Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass), and Brent Truitt (mandolin) are about as strong a foursome one will find within stable bluegrass lineups, and Damrell’s guitar playing fits in ideally.
No shortage of powerful songs across this 40-minute set either. The opening salvo of “Bad For You,” “The Bartender,” and “12 O’Clock Blues” is stellar, touching on relationships, judgement, and deep-rooted anxiety-fueled insomnia. Rogers, who co-wrote all the songs excepting the Bailey instrumental “Mama Says No,” has taken things to a new level, crafting songs with the likes of Rayna Gellert, Thomm Jutz, Stapleton, Dean Dillon, Leslie Satcher, and her old Dead Reckoner compadre Kieran Kane.
Other stellar performances include “Innocent Man,” co-written by and featuring John Paul White on harmony, the catchy “I Choose You,” and the pensive country number “Lonely and Being Alone.” “Falling Man,” inspired by a picture taken on 9/11, is flat scary in its honest fragility.
The only drawback with Bad For You is the liner credits are near impossible to read—white on grey is seldom a good idea, and using a micro-font just further complicates things for those of us who still read such.
Bluegrass bands come and go, and it is the rare group who continues as durable and unified as The SteelDrivers a dozen years from their debut recording. If I was booking a festival, they would be among my first calls—Bad For You makes the group five for five in producing exceptional bluegrass music.