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Song Premiere: The SteelDrivers, 'I'll Be There'

by Ann Powers
Nov 13, 2012

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Endless love is not always a good thing,, as some of pop's best kinda creepy songs attest. "You'll find some things you can't leave behind," roars Gary Nichols, leading the harmony rush in "I'll Be There," the aggressively haunting song from daring bluegrass outfit The SteelDrivers.

This is classic country stuff — a murder ballad that anticipates, rather than reiterates, the crime, sung by a paramour who's proving more dangerous than dear. Set to a dizzying waltz rhythm, with Tammy Rogers' violin doing a devil dance with Brent Truitt's mandolin and Nichols belting like a gothic soul man, "I'll Be There" is as energetic — and scary — as roots music gets, and it's a highlight from the innovative bluegrass band's third album, Hammer Down, coming in early 2013.

"I'll Be There" was born one day when Nichols and John Paul White of The Civil Wars were hanging out at the legendary Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. near where both songwriters grew up. "John and I met as teenagers competing in 'battle of the bands'-type contests around the Alabama/Tennessee state line," recalled Nichols in an email. "I became a fan of his from day one. We have always written together in person and we started 'I'll Be There' at Fame. However, we didn't finish the last verse that day, so John finished it up later and sent it back for my approval. I LOVED IT!! He is a super talent and I am proud if this song as well as many of the others we have co-penned."

Fans of The Civil Wars distressed by that duo's recent (and, one hopes, temporary) dissolution will particularly appreciate the "haunted melody" that Nichols says came from White, and the intensity of the SteelDrivers sound. Nichols, who joined the band in 2010, brought "I'll Be There" with him.

"This song was written way before I was in the band," said Nichols. "I played a piece of it at a sound check at Eddie's Attic near Atlanta. It came to mind because John and Joy (The Civil Wars) had played the venue earlier in the year and had come up in conversation. Once I started playing it, Tammy really seemed to love it and started playing along. In the studio, the song burst to life. It was one of those tracks where we just knew we had something special."

Fans of dazzling bluegrass musicianship and a good country music horror story will agree.

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