The Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers can best be described as musical mavericks. Unbound by convention, they are inventive musicians. That they have teamed with comedian and banjo player Steve Martin live and in previous recorded efforts simply adds to their intrigue. Their ninth CD (sans Martin) is a testament to their ingenuity.
Despite playing instruments traditionally associated with bluegrass, their sound doesn’t neatly fit into categories. If nothing else, they have penned 12 great tracks, many of which draw on familiar themes that might be enjoyed by most readers of this magazine. It’s at times bluegrass, country, and Americana, with touches of folk, blues, and Southern Rock, with songs about working hard to pay the rent (“Diamonds In The Dust”), strung-out musicians (“Wasted”), or love lost (“Simple Is Me”).
When they play bluegrass, they incorporate the speed and instruments you’d expect, but the results are uniquely Steeps. Listen to the fast-paced “Blow Me Away,” with its dynamic banjo backbeat, soaring Nicky Sanders’ fiddle, tight choral harmonies, and ravishing mandolin flourishes from Mike Guggino. Add to that the fast-paced tune “Looking Glass,” which will have most listeners completely transfixed by the band’s instrumental prowess. Its tightly woven melody pushes every envelope in a manner reminiscent of New Grass Revival. There’s a mournful waltz in “Blue Velvet Rain” or banjoist Graham Sharp’s penetrating baritone/bass singing in “Down That Road Again,” which tugs at the harmony heartstrings. The latter, punctuated by producer Jerry Douglas’ tasteful lap steel and resonator guitar, is a story of reaching out for friendship, and had me singing along during and after the song was over.
“Break,” a familiar theme about heartbreak and breaking up, is a conversation between a man and a woman, a fast-paced duet between guitarist Woody Platt and vocalist Shannon Whitworth as the couple in the song work through the realization that their relationship has dissolved. In these tough economic times, “When The Well Runs Dry” (written by bassist Charles Humphrey III and Jonathan Byrd) will hit home. It’s mid-tempo country-bluegrass sung by Platt about the oil rush in the Plains: Ranch hands learn to roughneck and the men line up to work / There’s another boom, but there ain’t no room so they sleep out in their trucks.
It’s that musical connection with the lives of so many, whatever the style of music, that’s the secret sauce that keeps listeners coming back. And you’ll want to with this latest CD. (Rounder Records, 1209 Pine St., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203, www.rounder.com.)SI