Before Charm City Bluegrass Festival, SteelDrivers talk new singer, working within and outside traditions

Upheaval in bands tends to lead to chaos and uncertainty. For the SteelDrivers, it has reaffirmed the group’s purpose.

Since 2010, the Nashville bluegrass band has seen founding frontman Chris Stapleton depart for his own successful solo career, while his replacement, Gary Nichols, and another founding member, Mike Henderson, eventually left as well. Such key departures could have derailed the band, but they’ve persevered, said fiddler Tammy Rogers.

“The musical identity hasn’t changed, regardless of having a few personnel changes,” said Rogers, on the phone from her home in Nashville. “It’s really a fusion of sound, and that’s kind of been the hallmark of the band from the very beginning.”

Now fronted by 24-year-old Kelvin Damrell, a previous unknown, the Grammy-winning quintet is set to headline this weekend’s Charm City Bluegrass Festival. The SteelDrivers’ trademark sound — traditional instrumentation like banjo and mandolin with a singer-songwriter lyrical approach, amid touches of Southern rock and blues — will be on full display, Rogers said.

The band’s ability to coalesce these sounds effectively has made them stars in the vast world of bluegrass. But where some bluegrass artists hew closely to the genre’s traditions — acoustic instruments playing familiar folk tunes — SteelDrivers have thrived, Rogers said, less conventionally.

“We’re listening to the songs and it’s not, ‘OK, how can the song be bluegrass?’ It’s ‘How can we best serve this song? How can we best bring this song to life?’ ” she said.

They found a winning combination on 2015’s “The Muscle Shoals Recordings,” the group’s fourth album. Songs like the lively-yet-lonely “Drinkin’ Alone” and “Hangin’ Around” are clear examples of the band’s most appealing characteristics: Rapid and precise finger-picking, multi-part vocal harmonies and clever lyrics.

The album earned the SteelDrivers their first Grammy for best bluegrass album — an accomplishment that feels just as good today as it did that night, according to Rogers.

“The whole time I kept telling myself, ‘We’re not going to win,’ ” she said. “I really didn’t expect it.”

In fact, Rogers predicted the band’s multi-genre approach would work against their Grammy chances. Sometimes the band is described as bluegrass, other times it’s country or the wide umbrella of Americana, she said.

“When you’re that far outside any defined line, it’s hard to expect that type of recognition,” Rogers, 53, said. It’s a compliment to be recognized, she said, “but chances are if you’re that outside the norm, you’re not going to get the main bulk of voting for awards.”

Rogers was wrong, and happily so, yet that major milestone did not translate into lineup stability. Instead, without explanation, the band announced on Facebook last August that Nichols, who replaced Stapleton in 2010, and the group had parted ways. After some fill-ins, the SteelDrivers announced Damrell, whom they found singing Stapleton covers on YouTube, in January as the official lead singer.

Rogers said there’s humor in the realization that members of the group have been playing music longer than their new frontman has been alive.

“He’s a baby,” Rogers said, adding that Damrell hadn’t been outside his home state before taking the gig. “It’s a whole new world for him, and we can feed off that energy as well. He has tremendous potential as a singer. He probably doesn’t even realize all that he can do yet.”

On Saturday, the band will have the opportunity to show how Damrell puts his own spin on previous songs, while also previewing some new material they’ve been working on, Rogers said. She said the “big priority” will be to record the follow-up to “Muscle Shoals” later this year, but touring comes first.

Events like the Charm City Bluegrass Festival, with lineups offering different interpretations of traditional music, have become the most fun for Rogers to play, she said.

“I love music of all sorts, so as a fan, those are the ones I really love to go and see, like, ‘Oh wow, there’s a cool Irish band over here, and there’s a blues band and a singer-songwriter over there,’ ” she said. “I like the variety myself, and think it’s a healthy thing.”


If you go

The Charm City Bluegrass Festival takes place 4 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday at Druid Hill Park, 3100 Swann Drive. Performers include the Devil Makes Three, the Travelin' McCourys, Caleb Stine and more. (The SteelDrivers perform Saturday night.) Tickets are $30-$74. For more information, go to charmcitybluegrass.com.


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