By Robert M. Marovich
Take in a concert by The SteelDrivers and, in between songs like “Blue Side of the Mountain,” “Wearin’ a Hole,” and “Long Way Down,” you might hear a song or two from the canon of southern gospel music.
But until yesterday, one could not find an entire album of gospel songs by the GRAMMY-winning bluegrass band. Thanks to Gaither Music Group, The SteelDrivers released its first all-gospel album, Tougher Than Nails, on September 9. The album contains both traditional and new material. Most of the new songs were written or co-written by The SteelDrivers’ fiddle player Tammy Rogers.
Unlike African American gospel, where artists who sang both secular and sacred music risked evoking the ire of conservative churchgoers, southern gospel has been very much at home in country and bluegrass repertories.
“You can look at the beginnings of bluegrass music, in particular,” Rogers told the Journal of Gospel Music. “Bill Monroe always included gospel music on his albums. The Stanley Brothers. Flatt and Scruggs. All those early groups. To me, there’s never been a division. That’s the music I grew up on, and we almost always put a few gospel songs in the set. We joke about playing a barn dance Saturday night and being right there in church on Sunday morning.”
As an example, Rogers pointed to “I Will Someday,” one of the eleven tracks on Tougher Than Nails. “We used to do that song when Chris Stapleton was in the band. He wrote that with Ronnie Bowman. While we’ve never done a full gospel record until now, it’s always been present in what we do.”
The trademark bluegrass sound of The SteelDrivers is the thread binding the album’s nineteenth-century gospel classics with the newly-composed songs. “I wanted musically for the songs to sound like SteelDrivers songs,” Rogers said, “so they would fit seamlessly with our other material. It was a really conscious thing to incorporate gospel and Christian lyrics in what sounds like a SteelDrivers song.”
One of the album’s most lyrically inventive songs is the title track. Rogers wrote it with her longtime collaborator Thomm Jutz. “Thomm and I have written probably close to two hundred songs together,” Rogers said. “We were chatting one day, and he told me about a title that he thought would make a really great SteelDrivers song, ‘Tougher Than Nails.’ I said it did sound like a great SteelDrivers title, but he said it’s not about some rough and tough person, it’s tougher than nails, as in Jesus’s hands nailed to the cross.”
Another collaboration is the recently-released single, “Somewhere Down the Road.” “I wrote that with my dear friend Leslie Satcher,” Rogers said. “We call each other soul sisters. We can write a heartbreak country song and turn around and write a gospel song. We had gotten together to write ‘Somewhere Down the Road’ for The SteelDrivers’ last record, Bad for You. It didn’t find a home on that record, but I never forgot about it. I loved the chant sections and so when everybody got on board with the gospel album, I pulled the guitar demo of she and I doing it, and the guys wanted to make it work.”
Rogers sought to bestow a Celtic/Appalachian feel upon “Amazing Grace.” “I’ve played ‘Amazing Grace’ hundreds of times in church as an instrumental,” she explained, “and through the years, I developed that Celtic drone/Appalachian mix. I thought it would be beautiful and different to feature the fiddle at the beginning, have it morph into this beautiful solo country voice, with Matt [Dame] singing. And with the three part harmony, it becomes more of a bluegrass thing, then the fiddle fades it out, just as if we were on a mountain and the music is echoing through the hills and valleys.
“It was a simple but beautiful way to close out the album,” she said. “I still think in terms of albums. It’s not just a collection of songs. There’s a reason we put the songs in that order. There’s a definite thread, there’s a journey. I like to take the listener from the top to the end.”
No collection of gospel songs on a Gaither Music Group album would be complete without digging into the Bill Gaither catalog. For Tougher Than Nails, that song is “Going Home.”
“[Bill and Gloria Gaither] are icons,” Rogers said. “It’s their label and they’ve done so much. I thought it would be a great tip of the hat to do one of their songs.” She added that The SteelDrivers’ arrangement of “Going Home” is “a little bit different musically than probably what most people are used to hearing. We wanted to strip it down and make it sound like a SteelDrivers song, yet still honor the original tune and lyric. Bill writes really beautiful straightforward lyrics.”
The SteelDrivers also performed a Gaither song on the recently-released Gaither Tribute album. “When [Gaither Tribute] producer Tony Brown sent us some songs to consider,” Rogers said, “I asked if anyone was going to do ‘I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary.’ Tony thought that would be incredible. It fell into place so beautifully. We’re thrilled to have that song on that record.”
While Rogers’ fingerprints are all over Tougher Than Nails, she hastens to note that the production was collaborative, right down to picking the songs. “I tend to do more of the A&R for the group, if you will, mainly because these days I’m the primary songwriter, and I write stuff and send it around to the guys. But it’s up to them to pick what songs they like. We’ll get together, usually in my kitchen, and see what works for the group. We’re five different people with five different ideas sometimes, and that’s okay, because everybody gets a say in what we ultimately do. This record was no different.”
She said it was also the quickest record the group ever produced. “Gaither Music Group was willing to get the album out this fall if we could get it to them, so we literally booked four days in the studio and got it done.” Sean Sullivan, who mixed the group’s last record, 2020’s Bad For You, was also on board for this one.
“Magdalene,” another song from Rogers’ pen, is the forthcoming single from Tougher Than Nails. “As a songwriter, I’m always interested in coming up with a different spin on something,” Rogers said. “So a song about Mary Magdalene coming from her perspective—I never heard a song like that before. We just starting putting it in our set, and people are loving it.”
By giving gospel songs their distinctive touch, The SteelDrivers, through Tougher Than Nails, pay homage not only to classic gospel but to the pioneers of bluegrass music. Rogers believes that by blending elements of blues, Appalachian fiddle music, and Scotch-Irish balladry, and including a helping of church music, The SteelDrivers “are much more related to what Bill Monroe was doing than what bluegrass has developed towards.”
In addition to Tammy Rogers on vocals and fiddle, the SteelDrivers are Richard Bailey on banjo, Mike Fleming on bass, Brent Truitt on mandolin, and Matt Dame on vocals and guitar.