When Tammy Rogers called me for the interview, they were driving from Knoxville back to Nashville and then heading to Alabama the next day for more concerts. “It’s been a consistent twelve or thirteen weeks of shows,” she told me with no hint of exhaustion. The SteelDrivers are a Grammy award-winning, bluegrass band from Nashville, TN that made their debut in 2005, starting with members Tammy Rogers, Chris Stapleton, Mike Henderson, Richard Bailey and Mike Fleming. Although in 2010 Stapleton and Henderson left the band and were replaced by Gary Nichols and Brent Truitt, there is an evident respect for anyone who contributed to the band’s story. Tammy explains, “Chris Stapleton has been having a one in a million year but we still text back and forth; it’s been great to keep up with him. He texted right after the grammies congratulating us.” It is apparent that the entire group is a family, one that works together to create music that will resonate with the entirety of their fan base. Tammy Rogers, who sings and plays the fiddle, grew up listening and playing bluegrass, whereas the other members bring different perspectives including country and blues, which are integrated into their albums to help form that unique sound.
They may have evolved over the years introducing new members and styles, but they’ve done it in a manner that stays true to their voice. “I personally hope that every album shows the progression of the band. I’m not interested in recreating any album. The whole reason the band exists is for the music and for this journey. It’ll still be The SteelDrivers, we won’t be unrecognizable,” Rogers says assuringly. This is comforting for those of us who have come to know and love the rhythmic music mixed with dark lyrics and a blues-sounding singer which compels a desire to dance and let loose, but also concentrate on the deeper meaning of the words. When I ask her about artists that she personally enjoys or doesn’t mind covering she brings up Jason Isbell who is a longtime friend of Nichols and played a couple of parts on The Muscle Shoals Recordings. “I didn’t even meet Jason until he came into the studio but i’m a huge fan and he’s an incredible musician; it was great to have him there.”
The Muscle Shoals Recordings is the album that won them a Grammy in 2016 and I ask how touring has differed since that point, and whether she has noticed a change in the type of crowd that come to shows. “We might get more offers now, and from new venues, but the crowd has pretty much stayed the same. We’ve always had a very diverse range of people that listen to our music.” I believe there is a distinct reason for the assortment of fans, which ranges from newbies such as myself, to young children, to long-time bluegrass devotees. There is an element of heart and soul that is put into each song and it can pull emotion from any type of listener. Rogers explains, “For almost every song there’s just something in my brain or heart that inspires me, even if I haven’t directly gone through it. There is always some type of connection. I may have a personal experience where I can relate to an emotion, even if I haven’t lived it.” Hell On Wheels was inspired by her daughter, whom Rogers describes as being a handful as a child, but the subject in the song is an older, teenage girl, making it easier for the audience to relate to. Rogers also mentions that the original version was sung by a woman. “Since it’s written in third person Gary could sing it from the perspective of a father, so I was really excited that the guys were up to do it.” I asked her if there are any songs that the band didn’t feel they could take on. “If we’re trying to figure out if it’ll work or not, it depends on Richard Bailey. If he can figure it out, we can make something out of it. And he’s up for anything. Gary will write a song, sometimes with someone else and sometimes by himself, then we all come together to arrange it.”
When I ask Rogers if her time on the road goes by in a blur or if it’s all remembered vividly she replies with, “I’ve been touring for a long time, so there’s highlights.” One of these highlights, she mentions, is headlining and selling out the Ryman Auditorium in her hometown of Nashville. She says, “It was just so cool, walking out on stage and seeing that crowd, especially in my hometown.” I ask if there is ever any nervousness before shows anymore, or if it’s just excitement. Her reply: “When you’ve been working on your craft for that many years, that’s just what you do, you know it inside and out. I didn’t have a backup plan. Music was just always what we did, like breathing, i almost took it for granted.” It became clear that this band is made up of people who are musicians at the very core of the meaning, taking their personal experiences and feelings and translating them into messages that the rest of us can dwell on and relate to. I mention how much I love watching the crowd when I see recordings of the shows because everyone seems so lost in the music and having a good time and replies with a laugh, “Oh yea, we’re the bluegrass party band.” Their upcoming performance at the Schaefer Center on November 11th will be an incredible opportunity to feel the energy that surrounds their music.
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