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When Buddies Make Good

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
February 22, 2008 - 6:30 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Here's some hope for all you young musicians out there who have a band with edgy energy and a belief that with hard work you can make it.

Make it in that your CD is for sale in the big book stores as well as at the festival table, and you're not just living it but you're also making a permanent mark on wooden instrument music history.

Some buddies of mine are proof.

I walked into a Borders bookstore this week to look for the Steeldrivers CD, issued in January on Rounder Records (the bigtime).

Many moons ago, I rode shoulder to shoulder in station wagons with Mike Henderson and Mike Fleming enroute to such exciting performance venues such as the Coyote Club and Front Street.

We were in our post-college, wing-spreading era. They were studying their graduate lessons in which folk musicology draws the best pay in the barrooms of bohemian college towns and ski resorts in the Midwest and the West. I was along for the ride and taking advanced studies in how to pick it right under their tutelage, and paying my way by mixing sound and handling bookings.

Oh what a time, sometimes we even made a dime.

That was then and this is now and they've become Nashville Cats, brother-like friends that I see all too rarely.

And they're both in the Steeldrivers.

Henderson plays mandolin and National steel guitar on stage. He's known as a fine electric guitar bluesman and harmonica player down in Nash town, and makes his living writing songs for the big radio cats. I understand the Chairman also brought the steel folks together and pronounced them a band in session.

Fleming plays bass and sings baritone harmony in this quintet, and he's a darn good banjo player and guitarist when friends gather for a musical.

I've never met banjo player Richard Bailey, which is a miracle, because it seems like everybody in my old and new picking circles knows and respects him.

Fiddler/singer Tammy Rogers sounds great on the CD. She's among the four Nash "veterans."

But they've also got a strapping young singer-songwriter named Chris Stapleton belting out lead vocals and playing guitar.

Their band sound is somewhat like, if in 1949, Bill Monroe had hired a young Muddy Waters to sing lead and he put Sally Forrester in the vocal mix on the harms.

Although with his long hair and beard, Stapleton looks like he's just stepped out of that wonderfully progressive bluegrass period—1978.

Henderson and Stapleton co-wrote, or had a hand in, most of the songs on the album so it's fresh.

I won't review the songs and make a pronouncement. Music is subjective and my bias is obvious, judge for yourself.

But there are some things I can say for sure about Fleming and Henderson.

They know what it means to be lonesome.

Since our road days together, which were plenty lonesome, they've both played tons of music with various people and had their successes and dead ends.

In the rest of life, we've married and buried beloved friends. We've begat children and dealt with raising them. Then there's the million and one hassles that go with responsible living.

Days and nights never stop and the river of time grows swifter as we wade upstream, nearing ever closer to the day when we let go of this world and drift downstream.

But putting one foot in front of the other works, so here we all are, still trying to squeeze all the soul out of the day that we can, just like long ago.

This is all in their music. That and the biggest lesson of all that they taught me: that hard work is the key to success in the music business and most anything in life. But fun greases the gears.

So I walked into Borders and made my way to the bluegrass section. Which is always too small and too picked over for my tastes, but sometimes you just have to try.

Then there it was, the blackish Steeldrivers CD, wedged in between the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet CD and a Stanley Brothers album.


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