Interview with Mike Henderson of The SteelDrivers about the Band’s Debut CD

The SteelDrivers play what has been called rhythm’n’bluegrass (rhythm and blues combined with bluegrass).  this group of veteran songwriters and session men with innumerable hits, cuts, and licks to their credit  have recorded a self titled debut album, The Steeldrivers. The SteelDrivers performs back-country high-lonesome songs which collide with Delta soul, resulting in the freshest sound to emerge from Nashville  in recent memory. The SteelDrivers are Richard Bailey, Mike Fleming, Mike Henderson, Tammy Rogers, and Chris Stapleton.

Rounder’s Brad San Martin talked with mandolinist Mike Henderson of The SteelDrivers about the making of their self-titled debut album.

Tell us how the SteelDrivers got together… 

Well, Chris Stapleton and I had been writing songs together for about four or five years, and we’d amassed quite a pile of songs. I was in the mood to play some bluegrass, and I thought "Here are these songs we could do." I asked Chris if he was interested, and he was, and then I said we need someone to sing high and sing low, so I called Tammy and Mike. And we need a banjo player, so I called Richard Bailey in. I thought we’d learn some songs, have a little fun, maybe get a regular gig somewhere here in Nashville so that we wouldn’t have to rehearse too much. But after the first rehearsal, it became apparent that there was more to it than that. We figured that we had the potential to do more than just have a local gig once a week.

What was it that tipped you off to the band’s potential?

 To tell you the truth, it came about because we recorded the rehearsals. We did that so everyone could have something to take home and work on…but after a couple of days, one by one, the calls came in saying "This really sounds good." First one person, then another. People were on board from the very beginning. We rehearsed quite a bit the first six months or so, and it became even more obvious that we had something cool going. Then pretty soon the industry started sniffing around, and one thing lead to another!

You guys definitely have your own sound…did that happen instantaneously? Did you have to refine this?

It was just in there. The first time we got together, we wrote down tunes we all knew — bluegrass standards, covers, those sort of things. But Chris kept pulling out things he and I had written. Soon it became apparent that we didn’t need that outside stuff. There’s a lot of great bands out there perfoming traditional bluegrass, and they are really good at it, so we figured "Why not do something special with something that no one else had?" Now we have more tunes than we can play over the course of a regular show, and we’re learning more all the time.

This album has a pretty defiant, raw sound. How was it recorded?

It was cut live in one big room. We had a few baffles around, but we were all pretty close together — I’d say within ten feet of each other. I feel like Luke Wooten did a wonderful job of getting what "some air" on it, as i call it. He close mic’d all the instruments, but he also had ambient mics that were picking up more of what you’d hear if you were listening to a band acoustically and you walked ten feet away. He got the sound as the instruments got out into the room, and a lot of that is what’s on the record.

Where the vocals cut live too?

Yes. Tammy and Chris sang everything as it went down. If we made a mistake, we’d just stop and start over again, like what folks did before they had the capacity to overdub and punch-in. A lot of that too had to do with our rehearsal recordings sounding so good to us. We liked them and we liked the energy and the feel we were getting as we sat and learned the songs…and we recorded our gigs, too, and we liked the energy, the feel, the dynamics — as opposed to putting everybody in a separate area using headphones so that each instrument is recorded to perfection.

There’s stuff that made it to the record that’s not perfect, and we know that, but not too much music is perfect unless you contrive it and do each individual part again and again and make it perfect. Our feeling was that this is what we do on stage and people like it, so let’s put that on the record. more

What are, for you, the moments on the album where your hair stands on end?

I really don’t have a favorite too much, but I never listen to stuff I’m a part of once it’s finished. I haven’t played it in several months! I couldn’t tell you for sure all the tunes that made it, we cut a lot more tunes than what you hear on the record.

Songwriting plays such a huge role in the SteelDrivers sound. When you and Chris write a song, do you say to yourself "Let’s write a bluegrass song"?

Not really — we would just write the songs with a couple of acoustic guitars. when it came time to make demos, we’d get a full band, drums, keyboards, and demo ’em up in the Nashville way, to try to get them recorded, which is what you do when you’re a staff songwriter. But there seemed to be a kind of underlying thread — something about a lot of the songs that made them playable in a bluegrass fashion, just by changing the feel of it just a little bit. Chris’s singing ability has a lot to do with that, his ability to say "Well, when we do it with drums and B-3, it goes like this. When we do it with a banjo, it goes like this." He’s really good at being able to get inside the song and steer it different ways.

Were you surprised with the way these songs were reborn as bluegrass?

I was surprised with a few of them, because I was so used to hearing them the other way. Once you make a batch of demos and they are in a finished form, you tend to think of them that way. A lot of them had heavy drums and such, and I would think, "That would be a good song for country artist x or country artist y." But Chris would say "Let’s try it like this," and we’d mess with it and it worked just fine — we surprised ourselves on a lot of it!

Any specific examples come to mind?

"Sticks That Made Thunder" is a good example. The demo on it is pretty heavy, drums are really prominent on it, it had B-3, two or three electric guitar parts…I was just so used to thinking of it that way. Plus it was one of my favorite songs, and I thought "Well, this one just isn’t gonna work acoustically, it isn’t gonna be powerful enough." But after we played it two or three times, it really did work. It’s about having an open mind. If you go back to what Bill Monroe was doing in the 1950s, he was borrowing from popular songs of the day, twisting them around and putting his own stamp on things. He was just like everybody else — trying to have a hit. People hold him up as a staunch traditionalist, but his records had electric guitar, accordion, drums….stuff you couldn’t get away with at a bluegrass festival these days — people would say you’re crazy!

A lot of folks know you from your Dead Reckoning albums…but this is entirely different. What is your relationship with bluegrass? How and when did you first start playing it?

 I started playing bluegrass when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. I did that for quite a while, and I did it professionally for seven or eight years back in the ’70s, playing mandolin as well as fiddle and guitar. It was just really hard to make a living at it at that time, unless you were in one of the upper echelon groups, but as far as the band I was in — which was with [future SteelDriver bassist] Mike Fleming on banjo — we were working clubs and a few festivals, and it was just really tough. Bluegrass wasn’t as popular. It had a small renaissance sparked by the movie Deliverance, but that wore off.

Buy the CD: