by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
Seeing as Muscle Shoals is not more than a hop, skip, and a jump or two from their home base in Nashville — and lead singer Gary Nichols grew up there — the SteelDrivers headed down that way for their new set, unceremoniously titled as ‘The Muscle Shoals Recordings.’ But it sounds nothing like anything ever recorded in Muscle Shoals. There are no slinky bass runs, no funky horn parts, and no deep drum grooves anywhere to be found here.
That’s not to say, though, that it’s a bad record. It’s not. It’s just not what you might expect from the title. But it’s exactly what you might expect from the SteelDrivers — a head-on, taste-the-dirt blend of bluegrass, folk, and country that wraps itself around Nichols’ soulful voice and the deft skills of fiddler Tammy Rogers, banjo player Richard Bailey, mandolin man Brent Truitt, and bassist Mike Fleming. For another dash of authenticity, Nichols’ longtime friend and fellow Alabaman Jason Isbell even co-produced and added slide guitar to two tracks, “Brother John” and “Ashes of Yesterday.”
It’s a thoroughly supple, occasionally somber set, but even the darker hues have a fluidity that keep them from getting too bogged down in their own self-importance. Considering the rampant racial tensions that continue to wreak havoc on the U.S., the SteelDrivers’ heartfelt ode to the Civil War in “River Runs Red” seems ever-timely as Nichols intimates that the harrowing legacy, indeed, lives on: “The winners are losers, when you count the dead. We watch it go by. We all bow our heads. The guns have gone silent, but the river runs red.”