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Hammer Down by The SteelDrivers

Bluegrass is one of the most malleable of country music’s subgenres, played faithfully by legends like Del McCoury but pushed and pulled by everyone from radio stars like Dierks Bentley to jam bands like Yonder Mountain String Band.

The SteelDrivers lean toward the faithful approach on their latest album, Hammer Down, but add a pinch of soul to the vocals to keep the proceedings fresh.

Opening song “Shallow Grave” employs a wail from guitarist/vocalist Gary Nichols that rises high above the cold, cold earth mentioned in the lyrics. Guttural and full of emotion, Gary’s delivery is an ear-tweaker, announcing loud and clear that Hammer Down won’t string listeners along with banjo, mandolin and fiddle fireworks alone.

To be sure, that holy trinity of bluegrass instruments is well-represented, and mandolinist Brent Truitt’s playing, on “Cry No Mississippi” in particular, is a revelation. But the project truly succeeds because of the various voices in The SteelDrivers, who consider their bluegrass to be one painted from a darker palette—which, at times, can feel a little too dark.

Still, even in the most maudlin of tracks—“I’ll Be There” for instance—the light of harmonizing voices shines through.

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