In the mid-'90s, fiddle player Tammy Rogers and guitarist/mandolin player Mike Henderson played around Nashville with the Dead Reckoners, a ragtag group of country session players. On 1997's A Night of Reckoning, the band plays a little bit of everything, delivering both country ballads and twangy rockers.
The group didn't really set the town on fire, but it did get Rogers and Henderson to start collaborating and thinking outside of Music City's conventional country musical boundaries. In 2008, Rogers and Henderson recruited singer-guitarist Chris Stapleton and formed The SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band that sought to bring a bit of soul and R&B into the mix.
"I jokingly say I was in a bluegrass vacuum until I was about 25," says Rogers. "After that, I started listening to everything and anything. I always gravitated toward music that had that soul element to it, whether it was blues or R&B or any type of folk music like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. That was always the stuff that tended to have its basis in a soulful, blues place. I like Stevie Ray Vaughan and up through the modern players and bands that have that element. That's what I'm into."
Because all the members were known as session players, a show within city limits would have drawn a fair amount of attention, so instead they booked a VFW Hall in Franklin and began playing small gigs.
"We knew that if we booked an actual gig that a lot of people would show up because we were established and well-known," says Rogers. "We wanted to make sure we were well-rehearsed before we put it out there, so to speak. We practiced for six months and then we started doing these practice gigs."
The band would eventually start gigging in Nashville and its 2009 self-titled debut quickly established it as a bluegrass crossover act. Songs like "Sticks That Made Thunder" might adhere to traditional bluegrass standards, but on tunes like "To Be With You Again" and "If It Hadn't Been For Love," the group puts the emphasis on soulful vocals. The combination worked particularly well and garnered the band its first Grammy nod.
"It was amazing to have a Grammy nomination right out of the chute like that," says Rogers. "We got a whole lot of notoriety immediately and the reviews were amazing. We did The Conan O'Brien Show and a lot of press on the national level. It made things happen pretty fast, that's for sure."
The group also caught the attention of an up-and-coming British singer.
"I'm not exactly sure when Adele heard our music," Rogers says. "I do know that after the 2009 Grammys, when she had 19 out and was up for a few Grammys, we were also up for our first Grammy. She was touring the states at that point and as the story goes, her bus driver was a big fan of American music. She would sit up there late at night and smoke. He would play his music and he had one of our CDs and she fell in love with 'If It Hadn't Been For Love.' You can't plan that kind of thing. The randomness is awesome."
The momentum from the self-titled album continued with 2010's Reckless, an album that sounded sturdier and more confident than the self-titled debut. It, too, ended up with a few Grammy nods. But despite that album's success, Stapleton announced he would leave the band. While that caught fans off-guard, Rogers says she wasn't entirely surprised by his decision.
"Knowing Chris [Stapleton] like I did — we were close pals — I knew he had a rock band on the side," she says. "They were starting to do gigs. He had gotten married. He had his first child. He was starting to have his first success as a songwriter. He had a lot of things going on. For me, I grew up dreaming of being in a bluegrass band and playing bluegrass for a living. I did the country stuff because opportunity opened up and it was great fun and I'm glad I did it. For him, it was the other way around. The SteelDrivers was a happy accident. He was happy for all the success, but he didn't grow up dreaming of being in a bluegrass band."
For the band's latest album, Hammer Down, it recruited Gary Nichols, a singer-songwriter living in Muscle Shoals, to take Stapleton's place. Though Nichols's voice isn't quite as raspy, the band surprisingly doesn't miss a beat even though guitarist/mandolin player Mike Henderson also left the band shortly after Nichols's departure.
"I was thinking we needed to go in a completely different direction and not try to keep the same vocal sound," says Rogers. "Those were such huge boots to fill that I just thought it wasn't going to work and would be unfair to put someone in that position. The whole premise of the band has been everyone being their own person and not copying someone else. I didn't want to put someone in the position where they had to sound like someone else. Gary showed up and he opened his mouth and we started smiling."
Hammer Down doesn't deviate much from the band's two previous studio albums, but Rogers is quick to point that out it offers a few more mandolin and banjo solos as the group stretches out musically a bit more.
"We incorporate more instrumental stuff," she says. "Gary [Nichols] plays more lead guitar than Chris [Stapleton] ever did. That's kind of a new thing. Vocally — and what we're looking for in material — it's the same direction. We're really excited about it. This is the first time since the first album that we had the band on the record out on tour. We're looking forward to it."