The Steeldrivers deliver soul-dipped bluegrass peppered with rock n’ roll fury and from its inception in 2005, the band has met each sonic evolution face first with an almost supernaturally skilled core of dedicated players. At the heart with either pen or bow in hand is Tammy Rogers, a daring songwriter & multi-instrumentalist who’s defined the sound of The Steeldrivers and lent her considerable talents to a multitude of artists since landing in Music City in the 1990s. An accomplished writer before her tenure with the GRAMMY award-winning group, 2012’s Hammer Down saw the Texas-raised musician become an integral lyricist with the outfit. Their most recent offering, Bad For You, showcases a majority of tunes co-written by Rogers alongside former bandmate Chris Stapleton, Verlon Thompson, Dean Dillon, John Paul White, and Thomm Jutz. With Jutz, a German-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter, Rogers just released the intimate and serene Surely Will Be Singing, a project partially recorded in the home studio she operates with her husband, touring & session guitarist Jeff King. Rogers and the rest of the Steeldrivers– Brent Truitt (mandolin), Mike Fleming (bass), Richard Baily (banjo), and new lead vocalist Matt Dame– return to Macon and the Hargray Capitol Theatre on Saturday, February 26th. In anticipation, Tammy called to talk about recording her new album during the pandemic, her continued passion for the studio, and what’s just over the horizon.
AI- I would like to start by steppin’ back to early 2020 and the release of Bad For You, the first Steeldriver’s album with Kelvin Damrell on lead vocals. I have no doubt a huge tour had been laid out, probably stretching into years– and then the universe drops the mic in the form of the pandemic! Tell me what a prolific touring and session artist does when they can’t get in the studio or on the stage. What did you do?
TR- Well, we kinda panicked initially to be quite honest with you! When your whole job for the most part is predicated on being around large groups of people (laughs), it certainly puts you into a tailspin! But I think I’m very fortunate amongst some of my fellow musicians in that I’m married to another professional musician and we have a home studio. Pretty quickly, we got busy at home– people emailing us tracks or sending us hard drives to overdub on and to play on, so that really got us through initially. And then of course, for me being a songwriter, you don’t stop being creative just because you may not be able to be in a room with other people, or you may not be out traveling and touring.
The creative mind is always at work, so pretty quickly, a couple of my best co-writers, we just reverted to writing virtually, and by that, I’m mean through FaceTime or Skype or ZOOM. It wasn’t nearly as much fun as sittin’ around drinkin’ coffee and bein’ in a room together and playin’ music, but we got it done! We got the songs written that needed to be written, and we were able to keep moving forward and feeling like we were being creative and making something of that time and not just, as we like to say, sitting around eating, drinking too much, and watching too much Netflix!
Well, that was certainly a huge component of my downtime during the pandemic– that and listening to records! You talk about getting together with some of your co-writers, and I do wanna talk about Surely Will Be Singing, the album that you and Thomm Jutz just released. You guys met in what– 2017? And you’ve been writin’ once a week since then? Put that into perspective for me– how often do you write with anybody?
I typically write a couple times a week, so that would make Thomm definitely my most frequent co-writer. We just hit it off, and Bad For You, we had a couple songs on there that he and I had written together. When you find somebody that writing comes easy to and it doesn’t feel like a job, that’s special. And that’s not to say that I haven’t written some songs that I really love with folks [where] we really sit and spend a long time on it, but there’s just something that really, naturally flows when [Thomm and I] write. I think that’s why we’ve written so many songs together– because it doesn’t feel like work! We can get together and within an hour or two, we’ve got a song. And we don’t overthink it too much! We just try to keep that stream of consciousness and that flow going.
When did you record Surely Will Be Singing? Was that at your home studio or did you meet up someplace else for that?
Well, this is a prime example of a COVID record (laughs) because fortunately for us, Thomm had a home studio, I have a home studio, so it started out as more of a general concept than, “Okay, we’re gonna pick these 12 songs, we’re gonna get to the studio on these dates, and we’re gonna make this record, it’s gonna be done and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” It was more of a, “Okay, we’ve got all these songs that we’ve been writing and we’re continuing to write, let’s just start basically making recordings of them and see what we get.” When you’re a songwriter, you need to have some type of recording of your song to play to other people so they can hear it in case they might wanna record it. We call those in Nashville “demos”.
We started out very low-pressure in that way. It’s like, “Let’s just record some demos of these and the ones that feel good or feel like they work together at the end of it– six months, a year– we’ll see if we have a record or not.” And lo and behold, we were never in the same room recording at the same time! Thomm would record his guitar and vocal, and then he would zip it over to me by modern technology– email– and I would record my parts and my vocals or whatever, and send it back to him! This went back and forth, and then we realized, “Yeah, this is working pretty well!” If you didn’t know that we hadn’t been present in the same space, you certainly wouldn’t tell it from the recordings and couldn’t tell it from what we were comin’ up with. And then the same thing, we decided, “Well, there’s a handful of songs that really would benefit from having a fuller production,” so we sent those tracks to Mark Fain and Justin Moses. And again, with modern technology, they had the ability to record their parts at their home and zip ’em back, and it all kind of came together that way. It’s amazing, really!
With the number of albums that you have performed on, the artists that you’ve recorded with, I imagine that you’ve probably done just about every sort of studio process there is to be done.
I think so, yeah!
This last couple of years, remote recording has really become the thing, like what you just talked about and what you and your husband, Jeff, did very early on. How do you see that changing recording for artists going forward?
It certainly gives you a very affordable way to create. I remember, gosh, I don’t know, 15, 20 years ago when people started really converting from the old tape machines– if you’ll remember the 2-inch tape– to a hard disk or the computer as a recording format. I remember working with Buddy Miller– an amazing songwriter and one of my favorite people to work with and so fortunate to get to play on a bunch of his early records– and he always had the big 2-inch machine. He had a stack of great vintage mic pre’s and vintage mics and all this stuff, and I remember going to his house to record and he had just started using Pro Tools. I was like, “Wow, Buddy! I’m surprised that you’re usin’ Pro Tools now!” And he goes, “Ehhh, it’s just a tape recorder.”
I loved his philosophy because that’s really, in my opinion, the best way to look at it! It’s whatever medium it takes to get your thoughts and your musical ideas down and stored and preserved. So whether it’s back in the day a hundred years ago on cylinders, if it was on tape, whatever now into a computer, it’s just a way to preserve what you played and what you sang.
“Speakeasy Blues”… I know that you are a voracious reader, as is Thomm, and that one got its origins from a book by Terry Roberts, Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival. Tell me about going from the printed page into a song.
We’re always very respectful of the originator of the story. We didn’t necessarily wanna, and you couldn’t really condense that book down to a 3-minute, 4-minute song. For us, or at least for myself, when I’m reading books or reading poetry or reading an article or whatever it is– I’m reading all the time– I think my brain is more attuned to, “Oh, that’s a cool phrase. That a cool thought,” and I would never want somebody to think that we were plagiarizing their work in that way. To me, it’s more of a jumping off place.
“Speakeasy Blues” is a great example of that. We didn’t steal the title of the book, it was just this general idea of that time. That time period in history is pretty colorful, and it was almost like, “Well, let’s write a song about that time period.” It was inspired by reading that story, but it wasn’t necessarily telling the plot of that book. I took it is a great compliment that Terry wrote our liner notes, so I think he took it as a nod and a compliment. It was a neat thing!
“About Last Night”, I think is a fantastic country song. I can hear that in a variety of styles. You were talking earlier about different songs and different people, and I can just see that one appearing on either a Steeldriver’s album or someone else’s. I think it’s missing a pedal steel, for sure (laughs)!
Oh, me too! Yeah, that song could go as traditional country! We kinda joke all the time, it’s like, “Man, I’d sure love to hear Reba and Ronnie Dunn sing that one! Or Tim McGraw and Faith! Or Trisha and Garth!” It’s just really made for that type of classic country duet. And actually, we recorded a version– I’m pretty sure somewhere it exists– of me singing a verse so that it was more of a straight up duet approach. We didn’t necessarily do that for this record, but it certainly works great that way.
On the spectrum of bluegrass, The Steeldrivers are on the edgier end, but with you and Thomm, you stayed very traditional, very stripped down, almost straight from the back porch it’s so clean and clear.
Yes, and that was by design. I love what The Steeldrivers do, obviously. I’m not giving up my day gig! I want everybody to know, no, I’m not leaving The Steeldrivers– that’s my thing! But that doesn’t mean that every song I write is bluesy and gritty and in that world. It allowed me to do this particular record, it allowed me to explore other songs that I write, and have an outlet for it. As a songwriter, I don’t typically sit down and say, “Okay, today I’m gonna write a song for The Steeldrivers,” or, “Today I’m gonna write a song that I wanna pitch to the Grascals,” or, “I wanna pitch to Miranda Lambert!” But I try to sit down and write the best song that I can write that day. Typically, it’s after the fact that I go back and listen and go, “Hmm. Yeah. That would be kind of cool for The Steeldrivers,” or, “Let’s try to get that to Del McCoury!” To me, it’s just different facets of who I am and my musicality.
Is that why you are able to go between so many different artists? Do you enjoy the challenge of being able to find something new in every session that you’re a part of?
Absolutely! Absolutely! And that’s one thing that I have always loved and appreciated about living in Nashville and having a recording career as a session player– because you never know when you walk in what you’re gonna be asked to do, what style you’re gonna be asked to cover. I’ve done everything from Western Swing tracks, which I’m not very good at (laughs), but you walk in, and if that’s the song that they’re recording, it’s like, “Okay, well, I know enough about the style to figure out something that works!” So it’s very challenging that way. Or something that’s very traditional country. How is the fiddle supposed to sound in that context? Or something that’s really more roots rock like a Mellencamp track? What part am I supposed to play in that? I’ve been doin’ that now for 30+ years and I love it! I love it!
I wanted to ask that question in context with… I’m a big Chris Knight fan, and I believe that you have played on every single one of his studio albums…
I’m very proud of that! I love Chris!
I dare say that a Chris Knight album would not sound right if you were not on it. My original question that was stemming from that was do you make adjustments from artist to artist or is it song to song?
It’s probably more song to song. In a broad sense, yes, artist, artist. Chris definitely has a pretty defined sound, so I know when I go in what that’s gonna be. It’s roots rock. He’s kinda like the Kentucky Mellencamp mixed with Steve Earle. He’s amazing and it’s always great songs. Gosh, I’ve been working with him now for 25+ years, and I kinda know what it is that he likes about my playing and what it is that he’s usually looking for– not too polished, definitely a rock energy and rock edge. And it’s great fun to do that! But I played on the last Joey + Rory record, the hymns collection that they did, and their approach was much more acoustic, quiet, way more refined and simple, and I found that very joyous to do as well, and to be a part of that.
At the same time, sometimes an artist will throw you a curveball! You’re probably familiar with the song “Send A Boat”? I think I wound up stackin’ up some fiddle parts on that, so it was more of a section thing. If you just say Chris Knight, you immediately think of more of the rocker stuff, but he can turn around and do something that’s very reminiscent to like a John Prine fingerpickin’ thing.
Any projects that you’ve been involved with recently that you can share?
Let’s see… What have I been doin’? Besides [Surely Will Be Singing], Thomm and Mike Compton are workin’ on a really cool record of songs they’ve been writing, but definitely more in the old-time style. I think that’s gonna come out at some point this year, and I really love that stuff! That’s going backward, musically, to stuff from the ’20s. We did some sessions a few months ago. It was super fun! Tim O’Brien was playin’ claw hammer banjo and it was so great! It was like, “Wow!” I hadn’t done a session with Tim like that, so that was really a treat! Bill Anderson has a new record coming out this year, and I got to play on some of that. And that was, as you can imagine, classic Bill Anderson stuff, so it was much more country.
During lockdown last year, an old buddy of mine from Los Angeles sent me a bunch of stuff to play on for this artist named Grey DeLisle. I did mainly string section stuff, so that was super cool in a totally different way! Yeah, some interestin’ stuff comin’ out!
For The Steeldrivers, is it just a concentration on tryin’ to get back out on a regular schedule or do you guys plan to do something in the studio soon?
It feels like in a way, we’re still trying to promote Bad For You because it had just come out… I think we got 5 or 6 solid weeks of touring, and like you say, everything shut down! And in 2020, I think for the remainder of the year, we did maybe six shows. And then 2021, I think our very first show was maybe late April and then there was one or two things in June. So it was really July, August when things kind of picked back up. We had a very busy fall, which was great ’cause everything that had canceled from ’20 moved into the back half of last year. January of this year, just last month, we finally cleared out some dates that had been on our books for over two years!
I know we’re planning on doing a track for a Dave Olney tribute record that’s comin’ together. If you’re not aware of that, it’s gonna be really cool. I think we’re gonna do a track for that, and then the rest of this year, it’s light right now, which was really by design. We had a feel that this COVID thing might rear its ugly head in the winter again, seasonally, so we had one run in January, we’ve got one run in late February, and then one run in March. And then we’re very hopeful that the seasonal flu, whatever this is right now will have died back down. The summer and fall looks to be quite busy. So we’re rumblin’ around, talkin’ about some stuff, but as you know from our history, we don’t make ’em fast!
(Laughs) And why would when you make ’em to last!
Well, that’s kind of our point! We are still very committed, as I’m sure you’re aware, to writing all our own material, and we, unfortunately, had another singer change last summer. Kelvin Damrell left the band in June, so we welcomed Matt Dame, and he finished out the year. It takes a minute when you’re the new guy in an existing unit like that. I mean, we didn’t do a record with Kelvin ’til he’d been in the band 2 or 3 years, either! Same thing with Gary Nichols. We have to let things find their way in a sense or marinate or whatever you wanna call it for everybody to find that comfort level and their voice within the band. Because it’s always been a band where everybody was allowed to bring their own unique thing to the table. And that’s still what it’s about!