In bluegrass circles and as session musicians, the SteelDrivers are known as heavyweights, but even they can benefit from a little added star power now and then.
On “Brother John,” a devastating murder ballad from their upcoming album The Muscle Shoals Recordings, the lonesome quintet enlisted Americana poster child Jason Isbell to co-produce and play slide guitar.
“I think he pushed us a little more,” says SteelDrivers lead singer Gary Nichols of Isbell’s contributions. “If you listen to the songs we cut, they’re almost on the edge of ‘slow,’ which with a banjo roll doesn’t always work. He just allowed us to just be the band in the studio, and we kind of let him drive.”
Co-written by Nichols and Barry Billings, “Brother John” comes across quiet and filled with disappointment — perfectly positioned since it’s sung from the prospective of the killer’s brother. It was actually finished before the band’s previous album, Hammer Down, but Nichols said it was “too up-tempo and too happy sounding.”
Isbell took care of that in short order.
“Jason goes for the lyrics and goes for story songs,” says Nichols. “There were two or three songs he went for, and two of them were murder ballads. One was called ‘Black as Coal’ and it’s about a miner who kills his wife as well, so he likes the dark side.”
Obviously, murder ballads are still a mainstay in bluegrass songwriting. Asked why that remains true after all this time, Nichols doesn’t hesitate.
“I think it’s just that love gone wrong induces such rage in people, and there’s so much cheating going on in the world anyway,” he says, letting loose a wry laugh. “Sometimes it’s just good for the listener to be able to kill their spouse in a song. They don’t want to do it for real, so sometimes having that song can help them feel better.”
The SteelDrivers will release The Muscle Shoals Recordings on June 16th.