A Hobby Band Spoiled: Talking with Mike Henderson of The SteelDrivers
It was supposed to be a simple, fun band that would get together every week and pick a few bluegrass chestnuts. Along the way though, The SteelDrivers found a distinctive sound, landed a record deal and released a stunning debut album that garnered them a loyal following and multiple award nominations.
The band’s second album, Reckless, was released in September to rave reviews. The 9513 recently spoke with mandolin/guitar player Mike Henderson about the band’s formation and success. Prior to The SteelDrivers, Henderson released two solo country albums and two blues albums (under Mike Henderson & The Bluebloods), and he’s also been busy as a session musician and songwriter.
To see Henderson as one of the best guitar players around, check out this video. To read about him as a bluegrass songwriter, mandolin player and reluctant National guitar player, read on.
Did the success of your first album affect the way you put Reckless together?
Yes and no. More than anything, we wanted the first record to be a reflection of what we sounded like live, and we cut it all live. We were all in one room, and the mics were all bleeding into one another, so there was no way to go back and overdub. So, if someone made a terrible goof, we just had to go back and play the song again.
On this second record, we wanted to take it a step further and do a live-in-studio album, where we were separated enough that we could do overdubs, and on certain songs we knew that we were going to have additional things added to it. Another difference from the first to the second was that on the first, we were recording songs that we had been doing live, and we had them down. We knew how they went, and we were used to playing them. On the second one, some of the songs we had never really performed out in public before, so we were still in the arranging process with them. A few of them we tried several different ways.
The fact that the first one was a success was a great surprise to us all and a great thing to have happen. To get a Grammy nomination and all that, we certainly weren’t ever anticipating anything like that.
Most of the songs were written by you and Chris Stapleton. What do you think makes you such an effective songwriting duo?
I guess part of it is that we’re not afraid to go left of center. If we were trying to write for the Nashville machine, we’d never write songs about people being hanged and murder and stuff like. But just to know that we had an outlet for songs like that with The SteelDrivers, it makes it really possible for you to just relax and say, “There’s no rules, there’s no boundaries. There’s nothing that we can’t put in the song.”
It’s fun, because both of us have been writing for years and years, and you always have to think in your mind, “Is there any way this song can get on the radio?” and try to steer them that way. Obviously, when you have a publishing deal, if you can’t get any cuts, they can’t keep you around too long. Just knowing with The SteelDrivers that any subject is fair game just allows us both to let our hair down for a little bit and really write from a little more depth.
You’ve written a lot of honky-tonk and blues songs. When you’re writing a bluegrass song, do you change your approach in any way?
There’s only one or two of them that we wrote with the intention of being part of The SteelDrivers. The rest of them were songs that we just wrote, and it turned out that way. If we did decide to sit down and write one for the band, it would probably change the approach a little bit, imagining the banjo part as we were coming up with the melody. But the rest of the time, we just get a groove going and come up with the lyrics.
How do you see The SteelDrivers fitting into the bluegrass genre as a whole?
We’ve all been pleasantly surprised by how well we fit in. When we first started getting out a little bit, we would kind of slant the setlist toward the traditional stuff. As we started to veer off of that a little bit, we were surprised at how many old ladies in wheelchairs would come up to us and say, “You’re my new favorite band!”
Ever since we first started, we’ve always had a real good following of young people, even high school kids. In fact, one of our very early shows we recorded, just as a tool so that everyone could have a copy to take home and listen, see what we needed to work on, that kind of thing. The bass player’s daughter got a hold of it and made a copy for a friend of hers, and the next thing we know, he was a running a business selling bootleg copies to his classmates at school. We’ve just been amazed at how the music seems to go from the very young on up. It seems to appeal to a pretty broad range of folks.
With Reckless, one of the new additions was your National guitar. What led you to start using it?
On the first record, we just were trying to focus on what we were doing live, and at that time, I wasn’t using the National in the show. People kept bugging me, saying “When are you going to pull that National out?”
So one night I took it down to The Station Inn, thinking I would just play it on one song. When I did, the response was so good that I played it on a couple more. Then after that, I was kind of stuck. People kept saying to me, “Be sure to bring the National!” and giving me trouble. I didn’t want to haul it around. I was loving the fact that all I had to carry around was a mandolin, but now I’m stuck. And if I’m carrying around the National, I may as well use it on more stuff.
You’ve got the new guy in the band to do your carrying, though!
He’s got two guitars to carry, so I can’t really count on him.
One of the great songs on Reckless is “Guitars Whiskey Guns & Knives.” Is that meant to be a cautionary tale for aspiring musicians?
I think that initially we were trying to write… it might have been “Guitars Guns and Diamonds.” We were trying to write about a guy who takes his guitar to the pawn shop and what he sees in there, and how he feels about pawning his guitar. We tried that, and kicked it around for a little while, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Then one of us, I can’t remember which, said “What about Guitars, Whiskey Guns & Knives?” It just kind of came out after that.
I love your country and blues albums. What led you to going from that to putting a bluegrass band together in the first place?
The Station Inn on Sunday nights is a bluegrass jam, where they don’t turn the PA on and there’s just a big circle of chairs on the floor, and anybody that wants to can come in, sit down and pick. I’d been doing that because I felt like I was completely losing touch with my bluegrass chops and my mandolin playing. After I’d been doing that for a while, I thought I’d like to get back to doing this with some kind of band, where you have a setlist and you know what you’re going to play.
That was the idea for the band. We thought it was just going to be a hobby band, a fun band, and our goal was to get a weekly gig at the same place. We wouldn’t have to rehearse, and we’d just play the songs that we knew, the standards. It was just going to be real easy. We could invite our friends come down to sit in, we won’t care if we make any money or not, it’ll just be real social and be all about having a good time and playing some bluegrass.
After we got together and started rehearsing – the first rehearsal, in fact – I made a disc and gave it to everybody to take home with them. The next day, one by one, the calls started coming in saying, “You know, this sounds pretty darn good! I think we got us a group here.” After a couple of rehearsals, Chris kept taking some of the songs that he and I had written and doing them in a way that sounded like they belonged. They sounded like something a bluegrass band would play, and pretty soon, we weren’t playing any standards or covers, we were doing all original stuff.
That’s when the record companies started sniffing around and ruined our perfectly good hobby band. They turned it into a business.
How long have you been working with [new lead singer] Gary Nichols, and how has that been working out?
Gary joined us right around Christmastime, so not quite a year. I have to say, the transition was just seamless. Either out of coincidence or good luck, he sang all the songs in the same key that we’re used to playing them in. His range is about the same as Chris’, and I think Gary can actually sing a little bit higher than Chris can.
Gary would come in and say, “I’ve got these nine songs learned,” and we’d play them once, maybe twice, and it was like, “We don’t need to play that again. He’s got it down cold.” It was just a really smooth and easy transition. We really didn’t have to work at it very hard.
Gary’s been doing it since he was about 6 years old, and he’s a consummate pro. It didn’t take very long at all before we were ready to go.
Is he a songwriter as well?
Gary is a great songwriter. He writes for FAME Music – they have an office down in Muscle Shoals. I’ve been writing with him, and so has Tammy [Rogers, the band’s fiddle player]. We’re real happy with the stuff we’re getting.
Do you think that’s going to make up part of the next SteelDrivers record?
It’ll be the same as it’s always been. Anybody that wants to can bring a song to the table, and we’ll try it. We usually know after a time or two if it’s going to work for us or not. That process kind of takes care of itself.
What are your future plans with The SteelDrivers and your own music. You play in a blues band?
I play every Monday night at The Bluebird. That is a fun band. That’s one where we’re not trying to make a living off of it, we just do it because it feels good. We have a good time doing it.
As far as the future of The SteelDrivers, the sky’s the limit. We’re ready to go.
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