For their sophomore album, Reckless, the SteelDrivers face a rather unusual dilemma. Frontman Chris Stapleton wrote and recorded the album with the band, which still includes its lineup of some of Nashville's finest pickers, but has since announced that he's leaving to focus more intensely on songwriting. Stapleton's departure makes Reckless a swan song for the first incarnation of the SteelDrivers. And the exceptional quality of the album—and of Stapleton's vocal performances, in particular—allows Stapleton to leave on a high note, but it also suggests that the band was on the cusp of something even greater.
What the SteelDrivers did so well on their self-titled debut, and what they build on throughout Reckless, is incorporate a heavy dollop of traditional blues and Southern soul into their brand of bluegrass. Songs like "Peacemaker" and standout "The Price" break from typical bluegrass form in that they are driven by insistent rhythm tracks and repeated instrumental figures rather than by show-offy fingerpicking. Fiddler Tammy Rogers, banjoist Richard Bailey, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Henderson don't pull focus from their songs with extended solos; instead, they prove their phenomenal skill in more subtle ways, such as Rogers's lonesome, high fiddle lines on "You Put the Hurt on Me" and Bailey's bluesy banjo riff that runs throughout "Guitars, Whiskey, Guns, and Knives." On Reckless, the SteelDrivers sound even more like a fully formed band than they did on their debut.
Still, for all of the band's phenomenal gifts, Stapleton is a truly commanding presence on the album. With his calloused, low tenor, he sounds nothing like traditional bluegrass frontmen, who almost always deliver their songs in a nasal, high tenor range. Stapleton, instead, sings with the power and abandon of a vintage soul singer, as if James Carr had decided to sing with a bluegrass band. Listening to the break in his voice on the chorus of "The Price" and how effortlessly he slides into an unexpected falsetto note on "Good Corn Liquor," it's hard to imagine another male vocalist in Nashville today who could rival his performances here. That his ragged timbre is so perfectly matched to heady, bluesy material like "Higher Than the Wall" and the spiritual, contemplative "Where Rainbows Never Die" only makes Reckless all the more compelling.
The performances and the picking are unimpeachable, and Reckless finds the SteelDrivers making more subtle, if equally important strides. While their debut eventually settled into a comfortable midtempo shuffle, this effort is more varied in its pacing and more measured in its sequencing. The songwriting, all of which was done by Henderson and Stapleton except for "Good Corn Liquor," also demonstrates an economic use of language and a first-person authenticity in its details.
The question that hangs over Reckless, then, is where the SteelDrivers go from here. Singer-songwriter Gary Nichols has stepped into the no-win situation of filling in for Stapleton on the band's current tour. All available YouTube evidence suggests that Nichols is a hell of a singer in his own right, but his voice is considerably smoother and softer than Stapleton's, which immediately changes the band's sound. How that change plays out long-term and what Nichols brings to the recording studio and stage remains to be seen, but the incarnation of the SteelDrivers as captured on Reckless has offered one of the year's strongest country records.