Bluegrass musicians The SteelDrivers return to Columbia for festival

Friday, September 25, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 25, 2009
The SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band with connections to Columbia, will play at the Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival on Saturday.

COLUMBIA –  The SteelDrivers, an acclaimed bluegrass band based in Nashville, Tenn.,  owes some of its success to Columbia.

Band members Mike Henderson and Mike Fleming are native Missourians and MU alumni who met in college and played bluegrass for the Hell Band in the late 1970s, often in Peace Park.


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On Saturday, they will play at Peace Park again at Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival, but this time they are more than a college bluegrass band. The SteelDrivers are made up of accomplished musicians, industry veterans who have played and recorded with an impressive list of stars.

In addition to Henderson on mandolin and Fleming on upright bass, the remaining SteelDrivers are Tammy Rogers on fiddle, Richard Bailey on banjo and Chris Stapleton on guitar and vocals.

They perform from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday on the Mediacom Stage in Peace Park.

Henderson and Stapleton wrote most of the songs on their 2008 self-titled debut album. They had been writing songs together for about five years before The SteelDrivers came together. Each had an extensive repertoire of bluegrass songs that had been sitting, going to waste.

“A big part of our success is the songs. They are well written songs” Fleming said.

The success of the band does not solely rely on the writing.  Their musicianship shows in their album and performances.

The SteelDrivers have been claimed by fans of bluegrass, Americana and country music. Fleming said their sound has also been called "Rhythm and Bluegrass" and "Bluesgrass."

So what distinguishes them from other bluegrass or country acts?

“A little more blues,” Fleming said.

A little more soul, too. Stapleton’s powerful voice launches the band away from its bluegrass foundations and into the genre-bending style that has brought them recognition. The strength and tone of his voice has been compared to the voicesof Tom Waits and Dr. Ralph Stanley, but Stapleton has an emotional range reminiscent of Eddie Vedder.

The harmonies of Rogers, Fleming and Henderson bring the music back to country. This is best illustrated in the Grammy-nominated song "Blue Side of the Mountain," in the “Best Performance by a Country Duo or Group” category.

In this tune, Rogers’ country harmony is the ideal counterpoint to the raspy lead vocals. Fleming’s bass picking and Henderson's and Stapleton’s strumming keeps the beat. Rogers and Bailey layer the song with long notes on the fiddle and short notes on the banjo.

Fleming said he is proud to be playing in Columbia. He remembers playing shows at Peace Park on Sunday afternoons. “All of Ninth Street and that whole area where the show is, it hasn’t changed a bit,” Fleming said.

Many of the bars where Henderson and Fleming used to play are gone, or have changed ownership and name, such as the Cork and Dart Pub. However, Booches is still around, and Henderson plans on "sticking his head in" while he is in town.

Music has taken Henderson and Fleming all over the country and the world. They have played on "Late Night with Conan O’Brien"; in the 2009 Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn.; and reached the No. 1 spot on the iTunes list of Americana and bluegrass albums in 2008.

Since February, The SteelDrivers have been working on a new album, which is due out in January. Henderson said the album is basically done, meaning Columbia might get to hear some of the songs on Saturday.


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