“We’re Still Murdering People Regularly”: An Interview with The SteelDrivers’ Tammy Rogers
Born in Tennessee but raised in Irving, Texas, Rogers quickly became proficient on the fiddle. After graduating from SMU University she joined Patty Loveless’ and Trisha Yearwood’s bands, and released three independent and critically well-received solo albums in the late 90s that mostly went under the popular culture radar. In 2008, Rogers, distinctive vocalist and soulful singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton, and three talented instrumentalists launched The SteelDrivers with a self-titled album on Rounder Records. Blending bluegrass, dark lyrics and bluesy vocals, the group turned the bluegrass world on its ear. Multiple Grammy nominations have happened since– in addition to the release of another critically lauded album, Reckless. Despite the lineup changes — Stapleton’s 2010 departure and subsequent replacement by Gary Nichols, and Mike Henderson’s exit in late 2011 (he was replaced by Brent Truitt) — the band hasn’t slowed down a bit, and one common theme has remained: those deep, dark lyrics.
Before a sold-out show at Nashville’s famed Station Inn, Rogers was kind enough to sit down with Engine 145 and talk about those killer song themes, lineup changes and the band’s new album, tentatively scheduled for a January 2013 release.
Ken Morton, Jr.: How has the album creation process gone with a couple of new members?
Tammy Rogers: I think it’s been fairly similar. I think when we go in to make an album, the process is pretty much the same. You just get your songs together. At least that’s the case for me. I always think in terms of groupings of songs. I still love the concept of an album, getting songs that work together, getting things that work sonically and lyrically together. All those types of things go into my thought process. We’re still very much dedicated to presenting all-original material. That’s been a hallmark of the band from the very beginning. When Chris left, Gary started writing for the band. Mike started writing and I started writing some. When Mike left at the end of the year, there was some talk internally on whether we should look at outside songs. I said, “No, I think we should look at what we’ve got.”
KMJ: Do you find that any of the new tracks have taken on a new personality with some new voices in the band?
TR: If anything, the band functions more as a full five-piece band now. I think we have four lead instruments now. On past albums, it was more fiddle- and banjo-oriented. Not that Mike didn’t take solos, he did. But on the new album, you’ll hear the music split more evenly.Gary has taken some really cool guitar solos and doing some really intricate guitar parts. Brent Truitt is a phenomenal mandolin player and he’s bringing a lot to the table in that department. We’ve got more arrangements where he’s doing more in the background. That’s a real distinct difference. It’s been really fun.
KMJ: Have the themes changed at all on the new album?
TR: Heck no! (Laughter) We’re still murdering people regularly. We’ve still got a high body count. That’s all good. No, our fan base, they don’t have to worry about that. My husband keeps reminding me, “You have to keep it dark!” On this album, we’ve expanded where we have a song from the perspective of a woman at home with a gun. We’re equal opportunity murderers now. (Laughter) We’ve got one of those for the ladies now.
KMJ: Our Engine 145 editor heard that new song “When You Don’t Come Home” at a recent show and really enjoyed it.
TR: Woo hoo! That’s a tune that Gary and I wrote. I had the title and the whole thought that the guys have been having too much of the fun. The guys can’t have all the fun. So, we wrote one from the perspective from the woman who is left at home and she’s wondering, “Where do you go when you don’t come home?” That is how that hook is set up. It’s a feisty little song. A bit of my personality comes through in that one. Do you guys agree with that?
Richard Bailey and Mike Fleming: (In unison.) Yes!
KMJ: You never argue with the woman with the gun.
TR: (Laughter) Of course you don’t. My husband just recently put a gun in my hands for the first time. I said, “Are you sure, honey? You know I just wrote that song.” It’s fun and it’s fun to get the ladies in the audience all riled up.
KMJ: Who has carried the majority of the heavy lifting with the writing on this new album?
TR: It’s probably me and Gary.Gary ended up with four or five songs. One of those we co-wrote. I had [“When You Don’t Come Home”] and two others. And actually, we have two older songs that Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton had written that we had not gotten around to recording before. We loved them. In my heart and my mind–and I’m not just saying this, it’s true–Chris and Mike are SteelDrivers. They always will be SteelDrivers.
KMJ: Honorary members?
TR: Emeritus members. SteelDrivers emeritus. So songs they’ve written in the past or potential songs they’ll write in the future will always be SteelDrivers material. Some people might get nitpicky and say that’s outside the band. But it’s not really. They are always going to be SteelDrivers to me.
KMJ: Chris Stapleton’s vocals are so distinctive, I found it amazing that Gary could step in and make that transition completely seamless.
TR: Quite honestly, I did too.
KMJ: From the sounds of it, it seems like there’s a similarity in writing style, too.
TR: When Chris left the band, I mentally had it that we had to go in an entire new direction. We had to find somebody that sounded completely different. I didn’t want someone to think, “Hey they tried to find somebody that sounds just like him.” That really bugged me. But that fact of the matter is,Gary came in and opened his mouth, and he sounds a lot like him. He doesn’t even try to. He just has that Southern rock, bluesy voice. But Gary has his own thing, too. And I think people will hear some of that on this new album. He’ll get a chance to step up to the front and get the recognition that he deserves.
KMJ: How has Brent’s producer background influenced the album and its production?
TR: I think it’s been great. He’s brought in some great arrangement ideas. He’s way more discerning about some things than what we have done in the past. And that’s been really great to have another set of ears that’s attuned to listen to that kind of stuff. When you hear this new album, there are a lot of really cool instrumental things going on that we haven’t had before. We’ve done a little bit of it before, but there’s a lot more interplay going on this time around.
KMJ: You may have answered this question already with your “woman with a gun” comment earlier, but do you have any favorite tracks on the new album yet?
TR: Well of course, all the ones I’ve wrote. (Laughter) It’s hard to say. There’s a tune I wrote with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson that we just never got around to doing live. It turned out great. It’s just a really great track. It’s called “How Long Have I Been Your Fool.” That’s a favorite of mine. But I also love the tune that Gary wrote and that we’ve been doing live for a while called “I’ll Be There.” It’s a way different type of song for us. It’s about a stalker so it’s still really dark.
TR: (Laughter) Isn’t it? It’s a really good SteelDrivers hard core thing. Musically, it’s just really different from anything we’ve done. I think it’s great. I think it’s taken us into a really different direction. We’ve got a string quartet on there and some people think that it’s got a real Beatles-thing going on there. It’s really interesting. It has a gorgeous melody but the trio is really strong. We’re screaming on there. To me, it totally fits in with everything else we do.
KMJ: Have you guys landed on a release date yet?
TR: We’re hoping early January. January-ish.
KMJ: I’ve got one last open-ended question for you. What is bluegrass music to Tammy Rogers?
TR: Wow, that’s a good question. Growing up, it’s all I ever wanted to do. I laugh now about growing up in the bluegrass vacuum. That’s all I listened to until I was about 25. It means a lot. Musically, it means a lot of emotions and honesty. I’m just really happy that it’s come back around and let me make it a career. And also that I get to do it on my own terms. To me, that’s been the greatest gift. As a band, and being at this stage in my life, it’s all us. It’s just us. I feel like we are something pretty unique. And people seem to be liking it.
- Leeann Ward: Thanks, NM. I like a good pop hook, to be honest. So, maybe I need to try it again.
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
- Jim Z: to call the Dirty River Boys an "Austin area band" is still incorrect. They are based in El Paso.
- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
- Roger: Looking forward to picking up the Jamey Johnson Christmas EP - love all of those songs and can't wait for …
- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I can always use more dobro in my life! Thanks for the Phil Leadbetter tip! I haven't been able to …
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...
- Jim Z: Dirty River Boys are from El Paso, Texas.