The SteelDrivers started out as an extraordinarily successful, down-home R&B string band experiment. A broader-than-bluegrass audience — including Adele — took to their instantly recognizable sound, a sound the band is still churning out, despite the loss of founding and foundational members Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson.
Southern soul-steeped Gary Nichols stepped in just after the second SteelDrivers album was completed, and mandolin player Brent Truitt came on board before the band recorded its latest, Hammer Down, the first to feature Nichols’ contributions on singing, songwriting and guitar-playing fronts.
Nichols has traveled quite the journey from his Muscle Shoals, Ala., musical roots to his failed solo country deal and his current gig fronting the world’s foremost purveyors of unplugged picking, soulful belting and high-body-count tunes. He reflects on the whole strange trip in a recent interview with CMT Edge.
CMT Edge: I read that you auditioned for the SteelDrivers backstage at the Station Inn. Is that accurate?
Nichols: No, it actually happened at Mike Henderson’s house in December of ’09. It was a really strange order of events. I got a call out of the blue one day from Mike, calling to ask if I wanted to come up and audition for the band.
I had myself tucked under a rock down here in Muscle Shoals after being scorned by the major label letdown. … It was one of those things where I came down and wrote for a while and continued doing the songwriter thing and stayed out of the Nashville scene, with the exception of a handful of writers I’d made good relationships with.
I’d actually written with Chris Stapleton before the band was formed, and I wasn’t aware of the SteelDrivers. Of course, when he told me that Chris Stapleton was leaving the band, I was like, “Well, if he was in the band, I’m definitely interested.” Once I got off the phone with Mike, I realized I was familiar with him from the band the Snakes back in the day. So I kind of put it all together. And I got a CD in the mail and just fell in love with it.
You’ve been in loads of different bands, dating back to when you were around kindergarten age, I think. Is the SteelDrivers your first all-acoustic band?
It sure is. I’ve been a fan of bluegrass just because of the honesty and the purity of the music and the musicianship and the harmonies. I’ve been a fan for a long time and sat in with a few different bluegrassers. But it was definitely my first acoustic band or string band, if you want to call it that. Although after leaving Mercury [Records], I had been doing quite a bit of solo acoustic shows, songwriter-type things. I would sit in with a few different people and do songwriter rounds.
I found a video of you singing “Unbroken Ground,” the single from your Mercury days, with the SteelDrivers. So you carried some of your material over.
I did. We have performed three songs that would’ve made the Mercury record, the record that never was released. … We brought that one over, for sure, and it lent itself to both formats. The harmonies definitely helped and then the banjo and fiddle. There was actually mandolin and fiddle on the record, so it was easy to bring that over. Then “Cry No Mississippi,” which made the Hammer Down album. … When I came into the room and played them some of my songs, I guess it had the attitude that the SteelDrivers were already going for.
When you say “SteelDrivers attitude,” what exactly are you getting at?
Well, it’s definitely open to individual interpretation. But at the time, it was the raunchy, bluesy vocals and the subject matter. [“One Mississippi” is] definitely not a mountain murder ballad, but it’s a lonesome song, drinkin’ whiskey and all of that. I think the whiskey and the raunchy vocals was what made it acceptable to the SteelDrivers.
The band has been known and loved, for doing material that has what I’d call an unreconstructed Southern gothic streak running through it. That’s something you seem perfectly comfortable with on Hammer Down. Did you have to get on board, or were you already writing in that vein?
Well, see the stalker [song], “I’ll Be There,” was already written. I believe I was still under contract with Mercury [when I wrote that]. … It was definitely before I even knew the SteelDrivers existed. I think vocally and melodically, a lot of my tunes would have fit the SteelDrivers brand of music.
I remember writing my first murder song. … I’d only heard the first SteelDrivers record — the Black Record, as they call it. Knowing that their brand of music was uneasy listening, I knew following in the steps of Stapleton and Henderson — for the sake of the band and the fans — that had to continue. It was something that was actually really fun for me, which I know sounds dark and crazy.
So your first murder ballad came after you joined the band.
Yeah. I’d had the lonesome songs, but I didn’t have a killin’ song until I joined the band. Normally, I don’t set out to write a particular song or for a particular artist. I just write whatever’s on my mind. … “Shallow Grave” and “When You Don’t Come Home,” we set out to write a particular type of song, and fortunately we were successful. Because lots of times, when you plan to write something, it fails. It was definitely a fun way for me to vent and be a little bit violent because that’s the opposite of my character.
There’s always been an emphasis on originals from within the band. You contributed a number of songs to Hammer Down, but you also recorded three from Mike Henderson and/or Chris Stapleton. What kinds of conversations did you have about what material belonged on the album?
I’ll say this, and everybody in the band feels this way: Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson will always be SteelDrivers. So if we cut five more records, don’t be surprised if there’s a Henderson or a Stapleton song on the record. We honestly feel like we’re still keeping the material within the band when we do that. We do that for several reasons. One, because we love their material. Two, it’s their material that gave this band its identity. Three, for all the fans that miss them, we’re able to still give them Mike and Chris songs. Also, I think it shows that Chris and Mike give us their endorsement to carry on what they started. … Before Mike left the band, he’d played us “Wearin’ a Hole,” and it just flew all over me. I thought, “That could be the ‘Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey’ of this album,” if you will.
As far as the other songs go, it was just like probably any other band. … Tammy [Rogers], she had a couple of songs she wanted us to hear. She would throw it in an email, or we would play it for each other at a rehearsal before a show. Some of them we worked up and started playing live and would see how they hit audiences. Really, before you know it, you’ve got a record.
I don’t get nervous really, but I was a little concerned because you go through and you play these two albums of material live, and it seems easy to have acceptance as the new singer. But when all the sudden now your material is making the record, people are going to be taking a little closer look at you.