Yonder come SteelDrivin’ men — and woman

COURTESY PHOTO | Richard Bailey, Mike Fleming, Gary Nichols, Tammy Rogers and Brent Truitt are the SteelDrivers.

If it’s January on the Rock, it’s time for a bluegrass concert.

But this year we get more. Brace yourself for some muscular, improvisational American music on Saturday, January 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Shelter Island School auditorium. The concert is co-sponsored by Sylvester Manor and the Shelter Island Town Recreation Department.

Fresh off the plane from Nashville, come the SteelDrivers, and opening for them, A Jazz Connection.

Nominated three times for Grammy awards, the SteelDrivers are more than a bluegrass band. Their sound is a gumbo of blues, country and contemporary rock, built on a base of traditional bluegrass.

Since 1994, Islander Tom Hashagen has been bringing the best bluegrass to Shelter Island. Mr. Hashagen described the SteelDrivers as “a departure from what we’ve done … they are not straightforward bluegrass.”

The SteelDrivers don’t go in for the “high lonesome” vocal style — the kind traditionally associated with Bill Monroe. Lead singer and guitarist, Gary Nichols, has a classic Muscle Shoals blues sound that is closer to Greg Allman than Del McCoury.

And there’s another thing that makes the SteelDrivers a different sort of bluegrass band — a female band member. Tammy Rogers grew up in bluegrass, playing in a family band. She has recorded with such greats as Iris Dement and Randy Scruggs and toured with Patty Loveless and Reba McEntire. Her harmony is traditional, yet totally fresh.

The SteelDrivers are veteran session musicians. Richard Bailey, a Grammy-nominated banjo player, has played with many of the greatest American musicians over the course of his distinguished career, including Bill Monroe, Vassar Clements, Loretta Lynn and Chet Atkins. Mike Fleming (bass and vocals) has appeared many times on Austin City Limits and the Grand Ole Opry. Brent Truitt picked up a mandolin to play with his father and grandfather when he was 10 and went on to play with Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks.

A hallmark of the band is the quality of their songwriting. According to band member Mike Fleming, developing a new song is a process that calls on the talents of every member of the band. Mr. Fleming said, “The songwriter has a tempo in mind and maybe a riff or a hook. We listen to it and see if we can make it work, if we can interpret it.”

Describing the creative process that resulted in one of the hits from their latest CD, “Hammerdown” — released in 2013 — he said, “Gary wrote a song with a lyric about burning a woodshed down. He started playing it and everyone just fell in. We added background vocals and harmony. It’s a collaborative process.”

The SteelDrivers’ set list will draw from all three of their CDs.

Unlike more typical bluegrass bands, the SteelDrivers rarely perform the traditional bluegrass classics. Mr. Fleming said, “A lot of us had done that forever. We have the luxury of having some very good songwriters.” he added, “We don’t do a lot of wholesome songs. Mike Henderson, a former band member, referred to our genre as ‘uneasy listening music.’”

In 2011, Adele covered a haunting, bluesy song from the SteelDrivers first CD called, “If It Hadn’t Been for Love.” In performances, she introduced it by saying, “It’s a song about shooting your wife … and I feel like shooting my ex.” Mr. Fleming said, “Her version, which I really like, is pared down. She made it real folksy. It was a great compliment.”

Setting the stage for this evening of American  music and for jazz lovers in the audience, A Jazz Connection will open for the SteelDrivers. The group features East End talents Dick Behrke on trumpet, Bryan Campbell on guitar, John Ludlow on alto sax, Stephen Shaughnessy on bass, vocalist Lisa Shaw and Dan Skabeikis on violin.

Lisa Shaw describes the group as “four jazz musicians who came together because the collaboration between them is so good.” Their set of American standards will feature improvisation by each member of the group. Ms. Shaw said, “They never sound the same, each performance is different.”

Tickets are going fast, so contact Sylvester Manor at 749-0626 for availability.
“We always strive to have a good time onstage,” SteelDriver Mike Fleming said. “We do this because we love it and we encourage the audience to sing along with us. If they feel like yelling because something’s got them stirred up, well, go ahead and yell.”