How does a band weather the loss of a superstar frontman? Then what happens when they find a worthy replacement—and he leaves, too? For The SteelDrivers of Nashville, embracing significant change has become a mantra.
Sure, founding singer/guitarist Chris Stapleton left in 2010 to pursue a wildly successful solo career as one of country music’s new, multi-hyphenated maestros. But that just motivated Tammy Rogers, Brent Truitt, Mike Fleming and Richard Bailey to work harder at their singular blend of hard-driving bluegrass, rock, soul and R&B.
The SteelDrivers recruited Gary Nichols to fill Stapleton’s shoes in 2012, and the new lineup’s 2015 masterpiece, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Yet uncertainty reared its ugly head again. Nichols left the fold in 2017, forcing the band to again look for a singer who could co-lead alongside Rogers. Her teenage daughter found a new recruit on YouTube—Kelvin Damrell, a young growler from the same neck of the Kentucky woods as Stapleton—and in 2019, The SteelDrivers are plunging ahead with new music, tour dates in new markets, and a reinforced understanding of the inevitability of change.
Folio Weekly: Tell us about Kelvin Damrell—what does he bring to The SteelDrivers?
Mike Fleming: We’ve always had a bluesy singer, and Kelvin fits the mold. He is younger, but having that youthful energy coming from a different background is refreshing. Kelvin’s familiar with bluegrass, but he didn’t grow up with it. That’s perfect for us, because we aren’t a traditional bluegrass band. People call us a “bluesgrass” band or a “rhythm and bluegrass” band. Kelvin’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he’s grown up, becoming a more seasoned veteran. It’s a tough job in our band. Being a road dog with us is a whole different game than playing in your local town or region.
The band mostly plays three to four shows at a time, instead of weeks-long runs. Is that what’s necessary to mitigate those road-dog feelings?
This band started out as something fun—a way to make extra money. As it progressed, we still wanted to enjoy it. We didn’t want to go at it like killing snakes. We wanted to be weekend warriors so we could still keep our personal lives intact.
Yet The SteelDrivers are already working hard in the New Year. You shared a video of recording in the studio over the holidays.
After the turmoil we’ve had, finding somebody to step up to the plate has been important. Kelvin is bringing his own voice to the project, even though most of the new writing is being done by our fiddle player, Tammy, along with her co-writers, of which there are many in the Nashville and Muscle Shoals ecosystems. We recorded one new song, “I Just Loathe the Gun,” which sounds like it’s about shooting. But it’s more about a bartender who’s loading the gun when people are telling him their worries. And Kelvin sings the snot out of it. We played the Grand Ole Opry’s winter home at The Ryman Auditorium the other night, and when Kelvin hit his last few notes, people started shouting. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve seen a crowd do that. It’s the kind of thing I remember from when Stapleton would hit some of his notes. People’s eyes would get big.
You’ve mentioned that The SteelDrivers play hard, gutsy and gritty. You even called it “uneasy listening” in one interview. How fun is that for veterans of the band?
Oh, it’s the payoff. At this stage in our lives, if we didn’t thoroughly enjoy what we do, we wouldn’t do it. In sports, they say, “Leave it on the field.” We leave it on the stage. We give it everything we’ve got. We rarely let up. It’s a workout, a rigorous set. But that’s OK. We enjoy each other’s company. We’re tickled and laughing, having fun on stage. I think the fans enjoy it.
Especially when they get to witness a set like that in an intimate venue, like Prohibition Kitchen here in St. Augustine.
It’s really only been in the last couple of years that we’ve started picking up traction in Florida. It’s nice to break into a new state. We played a dandy of a festival near Tampa last year, along with Prohibition Kitchen. It’s a smaller venue, but I like when people are right up on you. We started cutting our teeth at The Station Inn in Nashville, which seats maybe 150 people. The thing that’s hard to replicate in bigger rooms is, how do you make it feel like you’re all in that little room together, enjoying the music and stories? That’s always our goal.