Here are two bands whose recordings are better reviewed together than separately, because these bands embody very different visions of what bluegrass is all about. Compare what they call themselves: The Grascals have a pun built into their name; the whole idea of a “rascal” is somebody mischievous but lovable, perhaps an outlaw but
still a good man at heart. The Steeldrivers, on the other hand, evoke with their name a tougher, meaner world, a place where good people suffer and the best one can do is endure. That, in a nutshell, describes the music of these two wonderful but very different bands: the Grascals sound happy even when the songs are ostensibly sad-
listening to them is uplifting. The Steeldrivers sound like they’re making music just to find a bit of catharsis in a world of sin and suffering; their music is plaintive, with the “ancient tones” (as Mr. Monroe put it) expressed with extraordinary skill.
Keep On Walkin”
The Grascals, whom I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live, have a special talent for taking country songs and making them sound like they’ve been part of the bluegrass repertoire all along- even adding some piano along the way but seemlessly blending it into the the chops and rolls. Their approach shouts out: we’re bluegrass, and we can do anything we want and still be bluegrass! Never losing their optimism, the great George Jones song “Choices,” a reflection on a life not particularly well-lived, becomes almost a song of redemption and hope, while “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” has such an infectious pep to it than one forgets that Waylon Jennings once conveyed a bit of threat in the original. This, I think, is what makes the Grascals so compelling; while every band from Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs has done bluegrass versions of pop, folk, and country songs, what the Grascals do is transform those songs, so you hear them in a new way, as new music. (I’ve already forgotten the original Elvis version of Viva Las Vegas.)
One interesting song, “Indiana,” made me realize that this generation isn’t singing about moving from the mountains to the town, but from the town to the suburbs- the nostalgia is still there, but it’s about a different history than the subject of so many first generation bluegrass classics. To me, the best song on the album is “Remembering,” about a life forever changed by the experience of war; it’s one of the few times on this album when the Grascal’s non-stop party slows down a bit, and the song itself approaches social commentary for our current era of two long wars. We’re back on the upbeat track towards the end of the album: “Keep on Walkin'” and “Happy Go Lucky,” have titles that pretty much tell you all you need to know. I haven’t said much about the arrangements or breaks, but rest assured, these guys are tight, fast and clean- they play at the highest level of professional bluegrass. The Grascals might sing some songs about the blues, but their music is all about taking a break from the hardships of the world- they’re among the most fun bluegrass bands I’ve heard in a while, and that’s a high recommendation.
Putting on the Steeldrivers after listening to the Grascals is a bracing experience, because the Steeldrivers embrace the lonesome, desperate sound in bluegrass and take it almost as far as the genre will allow. There’s not a single song on this CD that has a happy ending; most deal with death, injustice, suffering, and if love shows
up, it’s only as a danger. The very first song on the album speaks of a “world of shadows,” and you get the feeling this band means it. Compare “Dark Whiskey” to the Grascal’s “Happy Go Lucky”- two songs about drinking and bars, but the first is a dire warning, and the second, a celebration. “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” is one of the darkest bluegrass songs I’ve ever heard, as if the “Banks of the Ohio” were put into the voice of an obsessive stalker, who has murderous revenge as the only consolation for love gone horribly wrong.
“If It Hadn’t Been For Love”
The Steeldrivers often have a spare approach to arrangements, sometimes starting a song with just one instrument, but I suspect that it’s the voice of lead singer Chris Stapleton that will set the Steeldrivers apart for most listeners. Stapleton has a craggy, soulful voice, unlike almost any I’ve heard in the bluegrass world; he’s almost a Delta blues singer in a bluegrass band. (Not only that, but he’s written top 10 country songs for folks like Kenny Chesney. Go figure.) The vocals are so powerful on this CD that it took me several hearings to appreciate the instrumental quality. More than most bluegrass bands, the Steedrivers arrange their music around the narratives, not just alternating breaks, and they have a great feel for dynamics within the song. It’s great to hear a band that remembers that not all bluegrass has to go full speed ahead!
The Steeldrivers, like the Grascals, have created something new in bluegrass: a modern mountain sound, but one rooted in the oldest traditions. It’s to their credit that you realize these songs sound ancient and contemporary at the same time. Highly recommended.