My first response when I saw this album was weird excitement, stemming purely from the name: as a child who grew up on Harry Belafonte, I can't think about driving steel without thinking of the ever-classic "John Henry", easily one of the best songs EVER MADE (although my three-year-old prefers "Cocoanut Woman"). The details that followed seemed equally promising, since The Steeldrivers is a five-person progressive bluegrass outfit out of Nashville whose first two albums were released to critical acclaim (from the bio on their website). And while their lineup has changed since their last release in 2010, the ingredients are still pretty awesome (banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and guitar, as well as both male and female vocals in most songs). Long story short, from pretty much the second I saw this record in the Rhapsody new releases I was expecting greatness, although I will be the first to admit that bluegrass is not my #1 genre (or my #2, or #3, or... well, let's just say I don't know much about it).
So how does this album stack up? Musically, I have to say that it lived up to my expectations, mixing lots of fast-plucked banjo and mandolin with a wistful country fiddle, and veering from backwoods to folksy and everywhere in between. First track "Shallow Grave" has an Irish-sounding string intro which is soon joined by a twangy cascade of plucked notes and the male-female duet vocals which appear on most of the album ("I buried my love with a silver spade/Laid her down in a shallow grave/Can't keep love in the cold cold ground/Nothing in the earth can hold her down"), and standout "I'll Be There" has a folksier feel, with plaintive strings and a slower tempo to show off the scorned-lover lyrics ("I'll be the words/Stuck in your head/Over and over the last ones you said/Just listen close/I'll be there"). Then there's the up-tempo saloon-dancing track "Wearin' A Hole", and "Cry No Mississippi", which Rhapsody calls "a glorious 'f-you' to getting dumped". And yet... and yet. You guessed it, I have a beef with this record.
So what is it? Much as I hate to say it, especially since the Rhapsody reviewer kind of gushes over this thing, I was pretty disappointed by the lyrics on this album. Like I said, I don't know much about bluegrass, but I've heard enough country to know that there are quite a few tried-and-true woebegone standards, pretty much all of which are on this record, and not presented in a particularly new way. "How Long Have I Been Your Fool" and "When You Don't Come Home" are standard cheating ditties with standard lyrical fare, "Hell On Wheels" features that same hard-partying crackerjack of a country teen you've heard a million songs about already, and the list goes on and on. It's not quite as bad as Aaron Lewis, but close. And, HELL, as I read on freakin' Avant's webpage just yesterday (quote by him), "The trick is to find a different way to tell a story every time so it feels new". Sadly, I'm just not sure that's something these guys have mastered.