Justin Timberlake & Chris Stapleton Live at CMA Awards Video

We first introduced you to Chris Stapleton as part of Muruch’s Surfacing series in 2008 when his former band The Steeldrivers released their debut album and played Mountain Stage. Since then Chris has gone solo and this week he stole the CMA Awards by dueting with Justin Timberlake…

The SteelDrivers

The SteelDrivers’ self-titled debut livens up the bluegrass instrumentation of banjo player Richard Bailey, Mike Fleming’s upright bass, mandolinist Mike Henderson, and fiddler Tammy Rogers with howling Delta blues vocals courtesy of lead singer-guitarist Chris Stapleton. The album was recorded completely live in “one big room” with no overdubs, which captures the energetic style and raw power of the band’s recent performance at Mountain Stage.

“Blue Side Of The Mountain” lets you know from the beginning that The SteelDrivers are no mere bluegrass band. The opening verse simmers with a hard strum and Chris Stapleton’s bluesy growl before a plucky multi-instrumental burst heralds Tammy Roger’s pretty harmony.

“Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” would be a more straightforward country song save for the sweet sound of fiddle and mandolin. Meanwhile, “Midnight Tears” and “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone” possess the kind of pure vocal harmony and bluegrass instrumentation that should charm Del McCoury fans.

“Midnight Train To Memphis” and the moody ballad “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” are my favorite tracks on the album, as both yield to the band’s bluesier side and allow Stapleton to really wail. The murder ballads “Hear The Willow Cry” and “To Be With You Again” are also stunning.

I was not granted permission to share an mp3, but you can hear samples at the links below.

The SteelDrivers Official Site
The SteelDrivers MySpace

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Mountain Stage: Amos Lee, Sharon Little, Peter Bradley Adams, The SteelDrivers

Last night I sat among the large audience at the soldout Mountain Stage show featuring Amos Lee, Sharon Little, Peter Bradley Adams, and The SteelDrivers. NPR’s radio concert series once again outdid themselves in selecting talented artists, and some of the performances were astonishingly good.

The Cultural Center at Charleston’s Capitol Complex remains the most welcoming venue in town. Every seat in the Cultural Center auditorium was filled, but I managed to squeeze into the second row just below the audience microphone.

I was very disappointed to hear that scheduled performer Papa Mali had canceled at the last minute due to “travel difficulties” that left him stranded in New Orleans. Judging from the audio clips on his website, Papa’s sound is like a less rambunctious version of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – who, by the way, should definitely be booked on Mt. Stage sometime!

After the usual round of crowd warming and theme song rehearsal, host Larry Groce introduced Sharon Little. I would say I was equally as interested in seeing her perform live as Amos Lee, since her Perfect Time For a Breakdown has quickly become a favorite album of mine this year. As I suspected, Sharon’s voice is even more impressive without the polished production of the studio interfering with its power. She was accompanied only by guitarist Scot Sax and backup singers “The Sisters Two” – all three of which did a wonderful job – but I think Sharon’s voice would be strong enough for an a cappella performance.

Sharon physically threw herself completely into each performance and her vocals were quaking and beautiful from the opening verse of “Follow That Sound” throughout “Ooh Wee”, “Set You Free” (which sounded much better live than on the CD), “Peppermint & Glue”, and especially on “What Gets In The Way”. She closed with a clap-a-long acoustic version of “Try”. I really don’t think it’s fair to the rest of us for a skinny, pretty blonde to possess that kind of awe-inspiring voice. She had cool boots, too.

Peter Bradley Adams was up next and initially suffered from comparison. It was difficult as a listener to quickly transition from Little’s powerhouse blues vocals to the soft, low volume of Adams during his opening song. But as he eased into “Keep Us” from his new album Leavetaking, I suddenly remembered why I love his music so much and thoroughly enjoyed every song he sang after that. Singer-songwriter Claire Small sang harmony, and I’ll be seeking out her solo work after posting this review. Their renditions of “I’ll Forget You” and “Under My Skin” were lovely, but it was Peter’s pretty piano finale of “Los Angeles” that was most captivating.

After local singer Don Dixon filled some space in Papa Mali’s absence, The SteelDrivers took the stage. Though I do like country and bluegrass, I really didn’t expect much excitement from this band and their first song seemed standard bluegrass fare. So it was a wonderful shock when singer Chris Stapleton suddenly started belting out the blues in a way that reminded me of The Commitments. Highlights of their set included “If It Hadn’t Been For Love”, “Midnight Train To Memphis”, “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, and “Blue Side Of the Mountain” – all from their self-titled album. The SteelDrivers stole the show, managing to simultaneously please both the genteel bluegrass crowd and those of us that prefer a louder, more soulful blues-rock sound.

Amos Lee was the last to perform, but he didn’t fail to hold his own in the wake of the preceding acts. His set was even better than I hoped it would be and it seemed that the majority of the crowd came to see him. He and his band played “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” and “Black River” from his self-titled debut as well as the title track from last year’s Supply and Demand. And I was very pleased that he played my three favorites songs from his new release Last Days at the Lodge: “Truth”, “Street Corner Preacher”, and “Listen”. Though he wasn’t one to banter with the audience, Lee’s voice was absolutely gorgeous whether he was wailing those bluesier tunes or soaring into a flawless falsetto on his “slinky R&B” number “Won’t Let Me Go”. I would gladly have listened to him sing all night.

Unfortunately, Amos Lee did not return to the stage for the group finale of “Heard It Through The Grapevine” and neither Sharon Little or Peter Bradley Adams opted to sing verses. But The SteelDrivers helped Larry Groce round out what was a grand evening at Mountain Stage.

Mountain Stage Official Site

Listen to Mt. Stage sets on NPR

Muruch Mountain Stage Reviews