An Interview with The SteelDrivers

Brent Truitt, mandolin player for The Steeldrivers, the 2016 winner of the Best Bluegrass Album of the year, was kind enough to take a few minutes between travels and tour dates to call in to talk to DC Music Review contributor Karin McLaughlin.  This is the first of several interviews with bands that will be performing at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival April 28 and 29 in Baltimore, MD.

Karin McLaughlin: I was lucky enough to have Brent Truitt from the Steeldrivers call in to talk to us a little bit from the road.  They are quite busy and they have a great gig coming up that we are going to talk about a little bit later – Brent – thank you so much for taking some time while y’all are on the road, I know you guys are busy

Brent Truitt: Oh, you bet, no problem Karin.

KM: So, let’s see, Steeldrivers – 10 years…I guess congratulations first of all are in order on that for sure!  When I think an about an entire decade, I think how much has changed.  Number one, I’ve changed, everything around me has changed, and it’s absolutely crazy.  Now, you guys are definitely familiar with change but it goes without saying, that your ability to adapt to change, and to do it definitely with style and grace, has served you very well. 

BT: Well, thank you

KM: You guys have a Grammy win, and you’ve got a lot of other accolades to go along with it.  But you guys have gone through a lot of changes throughout the years.  You’ve had some members leave the band, but you’ve also, recently, picked up a new lead singer.

BT: Yeah

KM: So, I’m kind of curious as to how you meld and introduce a new singer into a group that has been consistent and together for so long.  And make sure that it’s a relationship that’s meant for the long term.

BT:  Well, I’ll tell you what – it’s luck (laughs), I’m just gonna be honest.  No, I’m not kidding – both times – when Chris Stapleton left, you know they kind of rambled around and were kinda lost for a little bit and Mike Henderson had heard, and maybe written some, with Gary Nichols, who took Chris’ place, and he came up and tried out and we were like “Wow, you sound great!”  He had his own thing but he had this kind of bluesy, you know, gritty thing that Chris had.  He was a different guitar player, by a long shot, but it was just a great fit and the band was able to kinda do all the stuff that they’d already recorded with Chris, cause Gary could cover that with ease and then it just kinda also , it just changed into its own thing, which is what – that same thing is happening with Kelvin, Kelvin Damrell, our new guy.  He’s actually from really close to where Chris is from in Kentucky.  We found him, believe it or not – Tammy’s daughter, is a young teenager and they all live on YouTube.  She was looking around on YouTube one night after we had to part ways with Gary and she heard this guy and we were all looking around on YouTube kinda racking our brains, trying to think of somebody.  We wanted somebody who could, you know, do a good job on the old stuff.  We weren’t really trying to replace Gary or Chris because we wanted to be able to – you know, our fans, we had kinda outgrown ourselves – our fans are more about our songs than they are about any one Steeldriver.   You know, when Gary left, we thought well maybe this is gonna be the end, but we went out with Kelvin and did a few shows and they loved him!  It was great, he’s able to do the old stuff and he’s able to bring his own thing to the new stuff we’re doing and it’s just like, ‘How do you get that lucky twice?’  To find two guys that are so great, you know?  And Gary was just awesome and we were afraid we weren’t gonna find somebody, you know, that could kinda fill his shoes but I’ll be darned if it didn’t happen again.  I called him up and I said “Hey man, you ever heard of The Steeldrivers?” and he was like, “Yeah man, I love Chris Stapleton, I love Steeldrivers!” and so we brought him down and he basically knew all four records.

KM: Wow

BT: Showed up and knew a whole pile of songs and we were all just kinda like ‘Wow, this is great.  He’s young, you know, he’s young enough to be my kid, which hurts to say.  So he’s bringing a whole new energy and we’re just having a great time!   It always hard to lose somebody you’ve been touring with for so long but there’s definitely a new energy and kind of just a new vibe going.  And the old songs are still alive.  It’s important for us to keep everything – we wanna keep the catalog growing but we want to be able to, you know, pay homage to the old stuff.  To be able to pull that off, we couldn’t just go find any singer, we had to find the right guy so we all just feel amazingly lucky.

KM: Ironic he’s from the same area as Chris (Stapleton).  They must grow lead singers out there like weeds.

BT: It’s crazy.  And when you hear him, have you heard him yet?

KM: I heard the new track that I think is on the website.

BT: Ok, good.  The first night he played with us, he got a rousing standing ovation.  Like a long, big time standing ovation.  It happened to be the night that Bill Murray was in the audience.  His first gig with us he went out to dinner with Bill Murray after (laughs) which is crazy!

KM: (laughs) Not a bad showing!

BT: Yeah, it was great! Bill gave him a lot of crap, it was pretty funny.

KM: He proved himself on night one huh?!

BT: Yeah, right out of the chute. It was awesome!

KM: Now The Steeldrivers have also been a constant in a scene that has changed quite a bit over the last few years.  Bluegrass has kind of taken off on this trajectory of something that it never could’ve been imagined to be, you know, a decade and a half, two decades ago.  It was its own little realm of very specific fans but now you see a lot of bluegrass bands playing festivals and getting worked into these bigger festivals with jam bands and all this other stuff.  How have you guys seen the changes and how have you kind of rolled with the punches and made sure – you guys have stayed in the forefront of that scene throughout, no matter what the changes are and kind of always been this standard of great music throughout – how do you guys ​develop as a band and make sure that you stay in the mix and at the​ forefront of all that change?

BT: Well, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure that we know exactly.

KM: (laughs)

BT: We try to always have really good songs.  I mean that’s really - that’s kinda where it all started.  The original band – those first two records – it was just chalk full of awesome songs, you know, with Chris and Henderson writing and Tammy’s kinda really stepped up since then, you know Gary wrote a bunch of songs on the Muscle Shaols record, along with – Tammy has a lot of songs on there too – and then we did a couple of old songs that Henderson did.  But right now, Tammy’s really taken the load on the songwriting.  She’s writing all the time, and bringing in great material, so really I think, at least for our band, if we can kinda maintain the gritty, bluesy bluegrass and keep those songs coming in that fit that mold, I think we’ll be fine.  Now as far as us being on the edge, I don’t know how that happens.  It just kind of – I think people are drawn to the sound of bluegrass that’s not all really high and whiney and real super traditional.  There are those bands that really love the super traditional stuff – but it’s true, it really has opened up in the last 10 or 15 years, which is really good for us.  We play bluegrass music but we also kinda play blues and R&B at the same time.  It’s kind of a weird thing but we just feel fortunate to you know, that we’re getting in to those festivals and those kinda shows and we’re selling out a lot of theaters. It’s just been great, we’re just so happy that everybody’s sticking with us through all these changes and we just continue to grow and we’re just having fun and riding the wave.

KM: Yeah! And you guys – not only have you been a solid presence in the bluegrass scene but you guys don’t seem to ever be off the road for very long.  What keeps that life appealing?  And what, more importantly, what makes it so that you guys can stand being around each other for that long of a period of time?  Do you guys do a lot of writing on the road?

BT: No, not really.  Really when we’re out here, we’re just trying to get the job done.  Like today will be, it’s already been a 12 hour day – by the time it’s over it’ll probably be closer to 15 or 16 hour day, when you add the travel and the soundcheck and the playing and all that.  I think, or us, we try to not stay out for long periods.  We all have families and I own a recording studio and Tammy writes all the time.  We all have stuff going on so, for us, we try to kinda be home at least usually 3 or 4 days a week – at least 3 every week.  That really helps.  I mean we couldn’t do the thing where the bands go out and be gone for 2 months.  We’ve all done it, I mean, I’ve done 6 weeks out before.  But this band, we just aren’t gonna do that.  We wanna keep it fun and just, not feel like we’re driving ourselves into the ground.  We’re usually out on Thrusday and home on Sunday, for the most part.

KM:  Weekend warriors…

BT: Yes, it really works for us.

KM:  There’s a lot of festivals that y’all have played and have had the pleasure to play at but you guys also draw plenty of people on your own, selling out, like you mentioned, a bunch of shows.  You guys have a 2 night run in particular coming up real soon, in I think it’s Manchester Music Hall that both nights have completely sold out.

BT: Wow, that’s good news, I didn’t know that!  I knew one of them was close.

KM:  Well, there you go, I come with the good news, that’s always a good thing.  But how different is it for you guys to play - and maybe the kind of onstage as well as the audience – how different is it and do you guys feel the vibes of a solo show versus a festival show?

BT:  Well, you know, at the solo shows, they’re there just to see you and that’s one obvious thing that happens.  On our solo shows, it’s usually, sometimes it’s theaters – we have a hard time – we have really young fans – our fan range is from 5 to 75 and it’s hard to always please everybody at our shows.  Sometimes we’ll try to have a lot of seating and then some standing so people can dance and have fun.  But the big thing is they’re just there to see you – you know, they’re there for you and you only and that’s kinda cool when that happens.  The festivals are great too.  Some of them are just awesome.  We’ve played some great festivals.  That’s a good scene – you get to be around all your buddies and it’s a kind of a place to catch up with everyone.  But the cool thing about doing your own shows is just having 1000 people all singing your songs, it’s crazy.  You’re just like ‘Wow, this is so cool!  These people paid money to come stand on their feet out here in this.’  We played out in Colorado – it looked like somebodies backyard – but somehow they crammed 1000 people into this spot and they were there for hours before we played!  They were just having fun and singing – it was just awesome, it was crazy, out in the middle of the mountains.  Really fun!  We love those but we love the festivals too.  We try to keep a balance of both

KM:  Those are the die hard fans!  Now this leg of the tour takes you guys up and down the east coast – you have a few mid-west dates thrown in – but we’re gonna specifically talk about The Charm City Bluegrass Festival coming up at the end of April in Baltimore.  Now it’s you guys headlining with Travelin McCourey’s, Devil Makes Three, a whole list of others, great bands on this lineup.  Are there certain bands that you guys particularly like to play on a bill with when you do festivals – like getting together with old friends – maybe you get some collaborations on stage going or guest spots or something like that?  Is it kinda like coming home to old friends when you get together with certain bands?

BT: Yeah, definitely!  I mean we’ve all been - you know, this is my 40 somethingth year of touring and being a musician so I’ve got tons of friends that show up at these festivals.  That part is great.  We don’t really have – there’s no one in particular – I mean we’re great friends with Del (McCoury), I’m friends with Ricky Scaggs, Sam Bush and Tim O’Brian and all those guys so when we all get together it’s just great to have some time to visit and kinda catch up on family stuff and just you know, it’s kinda like a family.  Especially in the bluegrass world, everybody knows everybody.  We don’t really have any particular favorites I wouldn’t say.  We just enjoy ourselves and are happy to see our buddies at the festivals.

KM: Are there some road traditions that you guys have as a band that when you get together and you get on the road – you know – this is something that you always do together or do certain people have to have certain things going to make sure that they’re content while traveling on the road?

BT: No, not really – we were all old road dogs, except for Kelvin, and we’re teaching him quick, we’re busting his butt.

KM: You’re breaking him in?

BT: Yeah, he’s just a youngster, I think he’s 25 and he had never been east or west of Kentucky until he went out with us.  He’d never been on a plane.  I mean, there’s a lot of firsts for Kelvin.  But yeah, for the rest of us, all of us have just been doing it for so long that it’s just kind of like, there’s really no, anything special anybody needs.  We just kinda roll.  A lot of times, we try to go out and have a meal together when we can or after a show we might end up at an Applebees having a cocktail and some appetizers or something.  There’s no set thing, we just kinda get er done.

KM: So now that you guys have this youngster aboard, does it kind of bring a fresh new light?  I know that it’s probably exciting always to be able to do what you do and love what you do and do it so well, but now that you have this kind of, wide-eyed, not any disrespect, but baby, on the road with you -

BT: He is a baby (laughs)

KM: Is it kind of opening up things and reminding you guys, that this is super exciting and this is what you get to do every single day?

BT: Yes.

KM: I’m sure he’s like a giddy little teenager but does it put a new perspective on things and give you guys a refresh on what you’re doing and why?  How does he see it?  I’m curious to know his reaction to this whole new world that he’s been thrown into.  He gets to do it with some people that have been absolutely amazing and knowledgeable and experienced and very recognized in the field.  So I’m sure he is really rolling in it right about now.

BT: Yeah, he is.  And to answer the first part of your question, yeah it is nice to have a fresh vibe.  He’s just so young and he’s really funny and he’s a smart kid.  He’s got a lot going on.  He’s a great player so it’s really fun.  We were all just​ basically ill when Gary left but having this new, young guy is just really great.  Plus, he’s got a strong back so he can carry a lot of merch. But for him – I can’t really speak for him, but I can see it in his eyes.  Sometimes when something new happens, it’s just like ‘Wow!’  I mean, can you imagine, being 24 and sitting down to dinner with Bill Murray?  And I mean, he just cruised right through it.

KM: That’s awesome

BT: His first time on the Opry – it was just great.  Cause, man that’s a big thing, playing the Opry, for anybody that’s in our genre, it’s a huge thing.  And he just walked right up to that mic and he ripped it!  It was great and he got a great response from the crowd.  He’s loving it, I mean, he’s just soaking it up

KM: That’s great

BT: And it’s good to have somebody we can kinda pick on (laughs)

KM: (laughs) The new kid…

BT: Oh yeah! And he takes it with a smile

KM: Well, that’s good, that’s nice that you guys were so lucky to find someone that kind of, steps up to the plate, and really, even though he is young, meshes well with the band right away and can do all these things.  Like you said, stepping up at the Opry and having the confidence and just getting it done.

BT: Yeah, he’s doing it and he’s doing great.  I mean, we call him a kid but he’s a man, he’s’ a full grown man.  He’s got a wife and two young kids.  I think he might still be doing it, I think he’s doing it part time but he’s a certified chimney sweep.

KM: Really?

BT: He’ll go home, work a couple days and then come back out with us.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before he’s able to quit that and do this full time (laughs).  But he likes it, he loves building stuff, he’s a construction guy and he likes to work with his hands. He really, he’s just soaking it up.

KM: Interesting.  So, you guys have quite a bit of tour dates coming up.  What else is on the horizon for Steeldrivers?  What are you guys looking forward to this Spring and Summer?

BT: Well, right now, our big thing is to get our record out.  We were supposed to have one out already and we’ve already been working on one with Gary, so that’s the big thing right now.  We try to, before every trip, we try to get together down in Nashville the day before and work on some of these songs​ that Tammy’s writing.  She’s working with all kinds of great Nashville writers and she’s bringing in some great stuff.  And just doing some great stuff so right now, we’re kinda in what we call ‘record prep’.  We’re just trying to pick the songs, kind of arrange them a little bit and maybe play one or two live that trip, just to kinda see how they feel.  So that’s the big thing right now is getting the next record.  Kinda getting the songs chosen and written and worked out and playing them live some before going in the studio, but that’s our big thing right now, just the new record.  That’s foremost in our process right now.  ​

KM: Alright, well, I think that’s about all the time that we have for today.  I definitely want to thank you so much – I know that being on tour and being on the road, it’s not always easy and you need time to yourself – so I appreciate the time that you take out to talk to people like me

BT: No problem.  Tammy did one in the car today too.  We love it, that’s what we do so it’s not a problem at all.

KM: Well, thank you very much and I wish you guys well on the rest of your tour and the album and hopefully to see you at Charm City

BT: Yes!  Thanks Karin

The SteelDrivers are scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival.

To learn more about The SteelDrivers you can goto their website or Facebook page.

About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.