By Annette Hinkle
Each year around this time, fans of bluegrass music can count on getting their fix at the annual concert held at Shelter Island School. This year is no exception, and on Saturday, Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Town Recreation Department team up to present an evening of music by “The SteelDrivers,” a Grammy-nominated bluegrass band based in Nashville, Tennessee.
All the players in The SteelDrivers come to the band with formidable music experience, including banjo player Richard Bailey who has appeared at Carnegie Hall and on Austin City Limits and has recorded with the likes of Al Green, George Jones, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette, among others.
Though The SteelDrivers seemingly burst on the scene in early 2008 by releasing a well received self-titled debut album, in fact, Bailey, a founding member of the band, recalls it was a casual conversation with his musician friend Mike Henderson that initially got the whole thing rolling.
Bailey notes it began when Henderson called to say he had been working up some songs with singer Chris Stapleton.
“Mike and Chris had been writing together for five or six years and had a bunch of material that hadn’t been cut,” explains Bailey. “He said, ‘This guy is an amazing singer,’ and asked if I wanted to be in a bluegrass band.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like fun,’” adds Bailey who agreed to give it a try along with bassist Mike Fleming and fiddle player Tammy Rogers, both of whom he had known years, but had never before worked with in a band setting.
“We got together at Henderson’s house one night and the four of us looked at each other when Chris opened his mouth and said, ‘This kid can sing,’” recalls Bailey. “We’d all known each other for so long and we didn’t know Chris, but he fit in.”
“We worked up a couple songs that night, just standard stuff, and it all clicked,” adds Bailey who said the initial idea for the group was just to play a weekly gigs around Nashville. “At the beginning, we didn’t care. It was just so much fun doing it. We just got together and worked up this great stuff. Chris and Mike’s song writing was incredible.”
Which may be why it didn’t take long for the group to break out of the local scene and garner some serious attention. Since releasing “The SteelDrivers” in 2008 and their second album, “Reckless” in 2010, the band has been nominated for three Grammys, four IBMA awards and was named the Americana Music Association’s New Artist of the Year.
Not bad for a bunch of musically-inclined friends who initially got together on a whim.
“We were all making a living playing music,” says Bailey who adds that they just hadn’t thought to do it together.
That’s the way it is in a place like Nashville, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an aspiring musician.
“The cashiers or servers at the restaurant are probably better guitar players than you,” says Bailey. “Everyone plays, a lot of people write. In the bluegrass community it’s really nice. It’s like family — everyone knows everyone. Most times when you move here and play for a living, you meet your heroes and become friends with them and go to cookouts at their houses.”
With so many musicians and bands circulating in and around Nashville, rising above the fray to carve out a new sound can be a challenge. When asked how The SteelDrivers’s music differs from other bands out there, Bailey responds: “One of the things is, it’s all original material. Everything we do is written by someone in the band.”
And that music is a reflection of the wide-ranging experience each of the musicians have brought to the band. Bailey is into jazz and R&B, Rogers came to the group having played with Reba McIntyre, Fleming was a blues guy, Henderson had worked with Mark Knopfler and Stapleton was a Ray Charles and southern rock fan, so vocally came from that place.
“Instrumentally, we tired to do what would sound good behind the song,” explains Bailey. “We play bluegrass instruments, but not in a typical bluegrass approach.”
Though Stapleton and Henderson left the band in 2010 and 2011 respectively to pursue their own musical interests, mandolin player Brent Truitt and guitarist/singer Gary Nichols have joined the line up and The SteelDrivers unique sound lives on.
“When we started, we were a shock to a lot of people. But now even in front of more traditional crowds they like it,” says Bailey. “We’ve had a lot of support from people like Vince Gill and NRBQ, and a lot of people I respect.”
And in many ways, The SteelDrivers are trend setters. Bailey finds the bluegrass scene has expanded greatly in recent years with bands breaking the boundaries of tradition by coming up with a truly unique sound.
“At this point, it’s something different and not the same 50 songs you heard everywhere,” he says. “There’s a lot more creativity now, and I’m glad to see it.”
The SteelDrivers perform at Shelter Island School auditorium, 33 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island on Saturday, January 18, 2014. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the music starts at 7:30 p.m. The opening act is “A Jazz Connection” with saxophonist John Ludlow, guitarist Bryan Campbell, bassist Stephen Shaughnessy, violinist Dan Skabeikis and vocalist Lisa Shaw. Tickets are $25 to $35 and the show is selling out fast. To purchase, call 749-0626 or visit www.sylvestermanor.org.