It's been a long wait, but mandolin ace Adam Steffey is finally back at center stage via the release of One More for the Road, his first solo album in eight years.
And a sparkling collection it is, ranging from fresh-as-dew renditions of such old reliables as "Durang's Hornpipe" and Red Allen's "Don't Lie to Me" to the classic-in-embryo "Warm Kentucky Sunshine" (with Alison Krauss on lead vocals) and Steffey's own lyrical burst of indignity, "What Gives You the Right."
A member of the Dan Tyminski Band since 2008, Steffey enlisted a lot of his bluegrass buddies to give wings to the new album. Barry Bales, who, like Tyminski, is best known for his work with Krauss' Union Station ensemble, co-produced and plays bass on the project.
Then there's Tyminski, himself, who contributes guitar and vocals, fellow Tyminski bandsman Ron Stewart on fiddle and banjo, Union Station member Ron Block on banjo and guitar and Steffey's former Mountain Heart colleague, Clay Hess, on guitar.
Adding to the rich mix are Ronnie Bowman and the SteelDrivers' Chris Stapleton (vocals), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Randy Kohrs (Dobro) and Bryan Sutton (guitar). Steffey's wife, Tina, plays banjo on one cut.
In a surprise but thoroughly satisfying turn, Steffey does his own lead vocals on five of the 12 tracks.
"I had been wanting to do another solo project the last few years," he tells CMT.com from his home in Jonesborough, Tenn. "But I'd get busy working on other [recording] projects or playing in other bands. ... Late last year, my wife said, 'You just have to take the time and make it happen.'"
Steffey says he hadn't even thought about a record label when he began assembling the album. Then Bales suggested he contact recording engineer and producer Gary Paczosa, who also serves as vice president of A&R for Sugar Hill Records.
Paczosa embraced the idea, signed Steffey and agreed to step in as co-producer.
"I had most of the songs together," Steffey says. "As soon as I found out that Gary was ready to start rolling with it and we started setting up studio time -- this would probably have been about the early part of December last year -- I thought it never hurts to throw the line out there to songwriters I know.
"So I put the feelers out, sent e-mails and called and said, 'If you all have anything that you can spare, I'd sure love to hear it.' That's where the title song [by Josh Shilling and Craig Market] came from."
Steffey also wrote the instrumental "Barnyard Playboy" especially for the album. He began recording this past February.
"I knew going in that I didn't want to do an all-instrumental album," Steffey explains. "As much as I like that -- I'm a picker -- to my ear, after two or three instrumentals, I want to hear something else. I want to hear somebody singing."
Thus, there are only three purely instrumental tracks on the album.
Perhaps the most arresting vocal performances of them all is Bowman's subtle interpretation of Kris Kristofferson's country standard, "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends."
"I knew if I could twist Ronnie's arm, it would be a good song for him to do," Steffey says, "and he sure did a wonderful job on it."
Steffey grew up in the town of Kingsport in eastern Tennessee, not far from the Virginia border, a region rich in country and bluegrass talent and history.
His maternal grandfather, Fred Carter, was a cousin of A.P. Carter, the driving force behind the fabled Carter Family.
"I remember my grandfather saying that the first time he heard a phonograph recording was when A.P. brought over some of the original recordings they had done in Bristol," Steffey says.
Those recordings, made in the Virginia-Tennessee border town in 1927, are widely regarded as having given birth to commercial country music.
Steffey says his grandfather used to take him to the weekend shows at the Carter Fold in nearby Hiltons, Va., not so much to hear the music as to catch up on family news. Still, the visits intensified Steffey's growing interest in music.
After high school, Steffey enrolled at King College in Bristol but soon transferred to East Tennessee State University after learning that his former mandolin instructor, Jack Tottle, was setting up a bluegrass and old-time music curriculum there. These days, Steffey serves on ETSU's adjunct faculty, giving private lessons in mandolin.
Steffey joined Krauss' Union Station band in 1990 and stayed there through 1998. That same year, he went with the Isaacs and played with them until he became a member of Mountain Heart in 2001. After seven years with that group, he moved on to the Dan Tyminski Band, in which he continues to play.
Tyminski and Bales maintain their roles as members of Union Station but aim to continue touring as a separate unit. Leading his own aggregation, Steffey recently showcased One More for the Road at Nashville's Station Inn bluegrass club. He plans to keep doing shows to promote the album.
Steffey says he's more than happy with the selections he recorded.
"They turned out even better than I'd been hearing them in my head," he declares.