“When I first heard The Beatles, I said, ‘I think I want to do that,’ ” Mike Fleming says in his Missouri/Tennessee accent about his entrance into the world of music. While The Beatles have inspired many rock and pop artists, they are rarely given credit for the bluegrass musicians who were moved to pick up an instrument after hearing them. Fleming took his Beatles-inspired passion for music to the guitar, banjo and now the upright bass as he plays with The SteelDrivers, a Nashville, Tenn.-based band with bluegrass vibes that will be among the many headlining acts at this year’s Utah Arts Festival, happening June 20-23.
Formed in 2006, The SteelDrivers’ harmony-filled, soulful sound is influenced by the diverse musical backgrounds each band member brings to the table. Fiddler/vocalist Tammy Rogers grew up in a family of bluegrass musicians, guitarist/vocalist Gary Nichols is from musical hotbed Muscle Shoals, Ala., banjo player Richard Bailey was nominated for a Grammy, and mandolin player Brent Truitt has toured with the likes of Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton. The combination of these longtime musicians’ backgrounds is what gives the SteelDrivers the ability to walk to line between bluegrass and other genres, such as blues, country and soul, and therefore appeal to bluegrass veterans and newcomers alike.
“We get people coming up, ‘I never listen to bluegrass music, but I heard you guys and now I’m listening to bluegrass,’ ” Fleming says. “So, we’ve kind of bridged the gap between nonlisteners and people who are listening to bluegrass, but would have never listened to it before.”
Less mandolin-heavy than other bluegrass bands, Rogers’ melodic fiddle and Nichols’ gritty voice carry listeners back to the stages of Nashville for a glass of dark whiskey and blue mountains. These Tennessee staples are recurring themes in the SteelDrivers’ latest album, Hammer Down (February 2013, Rounder Records). While many tracks from Hammer Down tell a story of lost love, even melancholic songs such as “Shallow Grave” and “Lonesome Goodbye” will have you tapping your foot to the infectious fiddle and banjo.
“We have a good time on stage and we just encourage our audience to have as much fun as we’re having,” Fleming says. “We’re not going to be solemn up there, we’re there to do our best and also have a good time and, hopefully, that rubs off and the audience has a good time with us also.”
While The SteelDrivers might appear to fit neatly into the bluegrass paradigm, they’re not afraid to experiment with different genres to create their unique sound. For example, the singers’ vocals lean into more bluesy territory, as opposed to the typical bluegrass singer’s “high, lonesome voice,” Fleming says, which, along with their unique songwriting, “differentiates us from other bluegrass bands.”
The SteelDrivers’ ability to pen relatable, original lyrics, as well as masterfully throw down their gritty Americana sound, has garnered the band a loyal following. And with all the band members’ long history of making music, they’ve perfected a sophisticated taste for sound and silence.
In the SteelDrivers, “you have some people that have a lot of years playing professionally,” Fleming says. “They hear what each other’s doing, they know when to play, but more importantly, they know when not to play. That’s what creates the music: the space.”
Whether you’re a fan of bluegrass or a greenhorn, the SteelDrivers invite all music lovers to check out the bluegrass scene. “Bluegrass just seems to kind of conjure up old guys in suits with the youth of today,” Fleming says. “They kind of go, ‘Oh, bluegrass music,’ and they don’t go just a step further and see what the whole thing is about.”
While engrossed in the ever-diverse array of art and the Utah Arts Festival, it might be the perfect time to step out of the norm and see if inspiration lies in the unexplored.
Utah Arts Festival
Salt Lake City & County Building
450 S. 200 East
Saturday, June 22, 9:45 p.m.
$12 for adults, kids 12 and under free