The Muscle Shoals Recordings

The SteelDrivers

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The Muscle Shoals Recordings Review

by Mark Deming

The SteelDrivers are a Nashville-based bluegrass band whose members aren't afraid to highlight the blues and R&B influences in their music, so it makes sense that they'd want to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the city that produced some of the greatest soul music of the '60s and '70s, including major hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and Solomon Burke. Apparently, working under the belief that there is something in the water in Colbert County, the SteelDrivers booked time at NuttHouse Recording Studio in nearby Sheffield, Alabama, and The Muscle Shoals Recordings is the fruit of those sessions. If the title were meant to suggest to fans that this was the SteelDrivers' homage to classic soul music, well, that's not how the finished product plays. Where there's an honestly soulful undertow to songs like "Drinkin' Alone," "Here She Goes," and "Day Before Temptation," The Muscle Shoals Recordings is a straightforward bluegrass set that walks a tightrope between traditional and progressive styles, but doesn't make much effort to break new stylistic ground. Of course, that's criticizing The Muscle Shoals Recordings for what it's not, when what it is happens to be solid and quite satisfying. The five SteelDrivers are outstanding pickers and vocalists who play beautifully, individually and as an ensemble, especially fiddler Tammy Rogers and banjo man Richard Bailey, and they're gifted songwriters who've brought a wealth of fine original material to the table for this album, including "Brother John," "Long Way Down," and "Six Feet Away." They also wisely brought in Jason Isbell to produce and play on a few tracks, and his presence is unobtrusive but a genuine asset. The Muscle Shoals Recordings isn't soul music, but it does happen to be music played with soul, heart, honesty, and skill, which means in its own way it isn't so far from the music that came from 3614 Jackson Highway after all. And if the title suggests a concept that isn't quite there, the music speaks for itself, and what it says is eloquent and deeply pleasing.

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