Unless you pay close attention to the up-and-coming local circuit or show up for opening bands, you probably don’t know Steel Rollers from chrome rollers. But this progressive bluegrass four-piece could be your next favorite band.
Right now, they’re four guys who have been playing together just 10 months. They’re all in their early 20s, live in Charleston, and haven’t even made their first EP yet. But the strength of Steel Rollers’ demo has people talking. And that conversational hum becomes a dull roar after seeing them play, skirting skillfully between physics-defying traditionals, funked-up bluegrass numbers, and jazz, reggae, and rock covers. If it sounds like too many influences for one band, think about the Punch Brothers, who have been taking the Americana world by storm by blending traditional, roots, classical, jazz, pop, and rock, and whose founder, Chris Thile, was recently named a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, the youngest ever at 31 years old.
For Ryan Morris, Steel Rollers’ singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist (banjo, mandolin, harmonica, etc.), it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the music he loves could help him realize his dreams.
“I was always the one who felt like it was pretty much impossible to make it musically,” the 23-year-old says over the phone during a late night walk through his neighborhood. “Every single day I’ve had off of work for the past six months or so, we either have band practice or a show. Every bit of my free time is put into this band, and everyone’s putting in super effort. I’m inspired to think something could come of it since we just headlined my favorite music venue.”
The Pour House has been Morris’ go-to music venue for the last several years. He estimates he’s seen “a couple hundred” shows there and knows every inch of the place — except the view from the stage during a headlining gig.
“Years and years, I would ride my bicycle across the city, through downtown Charleston, over the huge bridge to James Island, there and back home, a good five miles at two o’clock in the morning after seeing a show, and now I’m the guy up on the stage, sitting on the little backstage area I’d never been back in before. It’s definitely surreal,” he says.
Though Steel Rollers have been around a relatively short time, the band’s been years in the making. Morris and Steel Rollers’ 23-year-old lead guitarist Chris Williams met in high school and have been best friends ever since. As teens, Williams’ mother would drive them for music lessons every week. Williams thrived playing the blues while Morris discovered bluegrass. Later, Morris met Brad Poplin, Steel Rollers’ 21-year-old classically trained upright bassist, at a party in downtown Charleston. The two bonded over Four Loko. Later, they invited Williams to join their jam sessions in 2011, and Morris realized the trio was on to something. When Williams took a few months off due to “life turbulence and a girl,” Poplin posted a Craigslist ad for a third member, which 22-year-old Dallas Baker answered. Turns out Morris and Baker had jammed together years earlier. Williams returned and the lineup solidified.
Baker brought a few songs into the band, but up until then, Morris had never been able to write a song from start to finish. That changed quickly. “Sally” and “Hoes Be Choosin'” are, arguably, two of the best songs on the band’s demo, and they’re just the second and third songs Morris ever wrote, though he can’t remember in which order. Lyrically, thematically, and musically, they hint at the full spectrum of his inspirations.
“‘Sally’ shows the traditional influence,” Morris says. “As a songwriter, I’m a little bit simplistic: simple, down-to-earth, straight-up things. Most of the songs I’ve written have an allusion to this one girl I knew. At my 21st birthday, I was at an Allman Brothers’ concert and I’d almost never drank liquor before that point, and this girl buys a bottle of Jim Beam. Whiskey and bluegrass was a whole thing in that relationship I had, which is still very poignant to me.
“The relationship was a good two years ago, but the experience was very meaningful and affects me to this day and for the future, however many years longer I should last. That’s what I love about writing music. It might be a sad thing, but like blues, when you sing a lamentation, just singing it, regardless of the sad content, it’s uplifting to get it out there.”
He adds, “The last few times I’ve played it, I’ve had this massive grin on my face. I’m singing about this little bit of a heartbreak experience, but it brings this innumerable joy to me.”
Conversely, “Hoes Be Choosin'” is exactly what it sounds like. Morris laughs, recalling how the song was inspired by Poplin’s tales of the college bar scene, filled with “random people trying to sleep with other random people.”
“[Poplin] would always say, ‘Hoes be choosin” and I kept saying, ‘Hoes be choosin’, but they never be choosin’ me,'” Morris says. “One day we just sat outside of our practice space and the first verse of that song poured out of me in about 30 seconds. I feel like that’s why people genuinely like it so much. It wasn’t forced or thought about. And it made us laugh.”
The result is a brash, fun, and vaguely offensive ditty, but, by God, it will make you dance.
“That is our most popular and most requested song,” Morris laughs. “It makes me so happy to go out on stage and hear someone yell out, “Hoes Be Choosin!” Every time we play, at least one person will yell that out, and it’s so fun. They really want to hear it and that just inspires you to play so much.”
Fittingly, the first thing you notice when you watch the Steel Rollers play might be their striking balance between laid back and fierce. They’re having fun, but they’re skilled at what they do and redefining their sound and sharpening their precision with every show. They might play a raunchy version of the “Hokey Pokey” and weave some Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” into their banjo-driven cover of Bob Marley’s “Stand Up,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to their craft. However, Morris admits, the band is still hammering out a lot of issues, including fundamental differences of opinion as to what they need to do to reach the next step.
“We’re all about going as absolutely far as we can with this,” Morris says, before launching into a story about a potential gig. It’s a wedding and the band will have to add some additional traditional numbers to their repertoire, stuff they might have wanted to learn anyway, and while they’re “willing to start doing that,” Morris admits he’d rather not.
“I have a whole thing about not compromising myself artistically too much when it comes to playing music,” he says. “I think I’m more alone in that than the other guys. They’re more about playing any show, anytime anywhere. I’ve always had more of a feeling like, save it, and play only things that are right. At a certain point, a certain amount of compromise is bound to come in there. I think with how many gigs we’re starting to play and getting the word out about the band, we’re definitely getting to that point where we’re going to start having to make certain changes just for the sake of being able to play more and more music. But when we do that, it’s just going to give us more of an avenue to get our own stuff out there, and squeeze our own stuff in while playing the stuff people want to hear.”
But right now, the reality is that Morris works evenings at a gas station. Williams, Poplin, and Baker all work day jobs. They can only practice once or twice a week, which is frustrating for everyone involved. It also means they can only book one or two gigs a week, too. The money’s not great, but it’s getting better. Gigs used to pay $100 split four ways. Now they’re booking $300 slots.
They would love to make music full time, but baby steps. First thing, Morris says, he plans to buy a car and find a day job so the band can commit to three or four days of practice every week. After they’ve got more rehearsals and gigs under their belt, maybe then they can debate the merits of artistic compromise. For now, the band will keep plugging away. Earlier in the day, they booked another $300 gig, and they’re playing the Tin Roof on Nov. 18.
“I wouldn’t have thought this before, but I feel like we have the option to make playing music a full time thing,” Morris says. “Since we’re so new, and a little bit of ways down the road we’ll be there. We just have more dues to pay, I suppose.”
He adds, “Actually, that sounds like a pretty good idea for a song right there.”
Happy to be of service, Steel Rollers. Just remember us when.