Steep Canyon Rangers
Sometimes the phrase, “hard act to follow,” can mean trying to live up what you have already accomplished.
For the western North Carolina bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, it means living up to the past couple of years touring and recording with banjo player, singer and all-around entertainer Steve Martin.
The band’s first attempt at going Martin-less is the new album, “Nobody Knows You.” While some newer fans might mourn the loss of Martin, longtime Rangers fans will rejoice it as a return to the band’s signature sound.
“Nobody Knows You” is also the band’s first for Rounder Records, a label that somehow gets a better sound out of acoustic instruments than any other label on Earth (I know that sounds weird, but it’s true).
The new album, recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, kicks off with the title track, a bouncy ode to forgiving a former lover. It’s the perfect opening song for the album, displaying in both music and lyrics the band’s uncanny ability to blend new and traditional styles of bluegrass.
Woody Platt, the lead singer for the Steep Canyon Rangers when Steve Martin’s not around, takes control of the album. While his voice has sounded at times tentative on previous outings, here he is surefooted and secure in his timbre and sincerity.
Graham also plays guitar for the band and is joined by Graham Sharp on banjo, guitar and lead and harmony vocals, Mike Guggino on mandolin, mandola and harmony vocals, Charles R. Humphrey III on bass and harmony vocals, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle, lead and harmony vocals.
Guest musicians on “Nobody Knows You” include Jon Randall on guitar, Randy Kohrs on dobro, John Gardner on drums and Jimmy Wallace on piano.
“Between Midnight and the Dawn” finds the band stretching the limits of the bluegrass genre, throwing in bits of shuffle, swing and strange dark harmonies that sound like they came from the swamps of southern Louisiana. Instrumentally, the tune blends sharp plunk-y banjo notes with beautiful mandolin runs. It is definitely one of the highlights of the new album.
Reaching back to bluegrass music’s gospel roots, “As I Go” opens with beautiful three-and-four-part vocal harmonies before breaking into a horse race of tune, banjo and fiddle notes flying by at a furious pace.
The gentle love song, “Summer Winds,” finds the Rangers instruments and voices blending as one, in much the same way that Alison Krauss and Union Station sometimes does with a song.
Along with all of the incredible singing, the Steep Canyon Rangers manage to throw in one instrumental, the fantastically intricate “Knob Creek,” written mandolin player Guggino.
And while it doesn’t really add to the music on the new album, the packaging of the disc has to be mentioned. With beautiful art design and lyric book, the album is a double gatefold booklet that begs to be looked at and handled.
Said Larry Eager, writer and co-producer of “Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music,” “When they went into the studio for ‘Nobody Knows You,’ the idea was to avoid the old ‘deja bluegrass’ dead end, to avoid formulas at all costs. They prefer their own path, following their own intuition and the guidance of the old Nashville Don Light. ‘Separate yourself from the pack,’ Light told them. ‘Nobody Knows You’ does just that, as they cut their path both steep and wide.”
Added Steve Martin, “The Steep Canyon Rangers, with whom I have had the great pleasure of touring and have shared the wonderful honor of IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award, are not only great musicians who continue to explore both the new and old styles of bluegrass and bring a fresh energy to the traditions of American music, but they are also really fun on a bus.”
Rangers at MerleFest
The Steep Canyon Rangers will perform at the 25th annual MerleFest on Friday, April 27. The band is schedule to perform on the Watson Stage (main stage) from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.
For more information, visit http://www.merlefest.org. For more on the Steep Canyon Rangers, visit http://www.steepcanyon.com.