The Soulful Side of Bluegrass

Capitol Roots

Savannah Smith and Southern Soul perform a free concert at the Hill Center on Sunday, Sept.10, at 4:30 p.m. Photo: Hill Center

The Steeldrivers is a Nashville-based band with a traditional bluegrass lineup up of players who have performed with major country acts. They’re all virtuosos, but what sets the group apart is its exceptional songwriting and soulful delivery, which will be on display at The Hamilton on Sept. 22.

The Steeldrivers’ music is sometimes called bluegrass for people who don’t think they like bluegrass. That description doesn’t offend bass player Mike Fleming, who has been in the band since its inception more than a decade ago. “I actually think that is a great compliment,” said Fleming. “Half the time after they say that, they say, ‘Now I’m listening to other bluegrass.’ I think we have turned a fair amount of people on to bluegrass.”

One convert was the pop singer Adele, who covered The Steeldrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” after a tour-bus driver played the song for her. Her version of the song brought a lot of attention to the band and its lead singer at the time, Chris Stapleton.

After Stapleton left the group and went on to become a country star, The Steeldrivers recruited Gary Nichols to take his place. Nichols grew up in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where scores of classic southern soul and rock records were made, so the band decided to cut its next album there. The result was “The Muscle Shoals Recordings,” which won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2016. While there’s not a weak song on the record, a standout is “A Long Way Down,” which features fiery vocals by Nichols on lines like, “Girl, we both know where your soul is bound. It’s headed south just like the love you gave me, and it’s a long way down.”

When The Steeldrivers began, most of the members made their living on tour with big country acts. The band was a passion project of players who love bluegrass, but it has evolved into their main gig, said Fleming. “We might do another job here and there, but this is now our main band,” he said. “When it started, it wasn’t. It was just a way to get together and play some bluegrass songs.”

In addition to Fleming and Nichols, the band includes Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Richard Bailey (banjo), and Brent Truitt (mandolin). Nichols and Rogers write most of the new songs, and Stapleton’s tunes are still part of the repertoire. “We’ve been blessed with some good songwriters,” said Fleming. “It started out being about the song, and we said we need to keep it this way.”

Sometimes that means playing a song differently than other bluegrass groups might, with less emphasis on degree of difficulty and more attention to feeling. “Our music is more bluesy,” said Fleming. “And we play probably slower than a lot of bluegrass bands. Sometimes you can ruin a song by playing it too fast.”

Savannah Smith
Savannah Smith hails from Tupelo, Miss. – Elvis’s hometown – but she relocated to Asheville, N.C., a contemporary hotbed of all kinds of indie music. With her band, Southern Soul, she tries to bridge those two worlds. Smith’s voice still rings with the accents of the Mississippi hills, but her original songs reflect a contemporary perspective. She was a finalist in a songwriting contest at the Merlefest festival, but is equally comfortable covering an old Loretta Lynn song.

Savannah Smith and Southern Soul kick off the Hill Center’s 2017-18 Roots Music Series on Sept. 10. The free outdoor show begins at 4:30 p.m.


Charles Walston plays in The Truck Farmers, who will be performing at Mr. Henry’s on Sept. 14.