Steep Canyon Rangers
Deep In The Shade
4.5 stars (out of 5)
While the bluegrass world is chock-a-block with exciting, young contemporary outfits, no other excites and impresses in the manner of the Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Rangers are on a roll. While they didn’t appear on Steve Martin’s popular and impressive The Crow last year, they gained considerable exposure appearing with the arrow-headed one at several high-profile gigs last fall: Hardly Strictly, Letterman, and Carnegie Hall. That explosive momentum is maintained by the dozen tracks comprising Deep In The Shade.
Having previously released four albums, each stronger and more distinctive than its predecessor, the Steep Canyon Rangers have the experience and chops to continue this unbroken string. Again working with producer Ronnie Bowman, the band hasn’t significantly altered their approach or sound. And while on some bands this may appear stagnant or limited, with the Rangers the impression is of consistency and capability.
Woody Platt’s voice is one of the group’s strongest features. It is south of high lonesome, inhabiting the mountainside between old-time and country, similar to Leigh Gibson (The Gibson Brothers). His voice is smooth and controlled, yet peppered with flavor that encourages one to return for additional helpings.
As always, the band is a cohesive unit, each part contributing to the high quality presentation. I’ve written previously of the interplay between Nicky Sanders’ fiddling and Graham Sharp’s banjo, and this impressive element remains apparent, especially on a track such as “I Thought That She Loved Me.” One day, and hopefully soon, the blistering mandolin talent of Mike Guggino will be recognized by those who vote on such things within the professional bluegrass community. Like all good bass players do, Charles Humphrey III keeps things between the lines while laying down a solid foundation on which the others build.
The songs, all but two band-written, are exceptional. Well-balanced between reflective lopers and the lively sounds most generally associated with bluegrass, there doesn’t appear to be an after-thought amongst the tracks. From the failed infidelity of the radio friendly “Have Mercy” to the Asheville-bound romp that is “Turn Up the Bottle,” the Rangers cover territory expected of quality bluegrass bands.
But they also gently push boundaries. Their four-part a capella treatment of the blues-standard “Sylvie” is spellbinding. The neo-folkiness of “The Mountain’s Gonna Sing” is like few other songs recently encountered:
Beneath the laurels, pearls of rain,
fall and shatter and sink into the clay.
Wash away these hills, wash away the dawn,
somehow there’s still the strength to carry on.
The spirit ever lingers in a song,
and the mountain’s gonna sing this song for me…
and rock me off to sleep.
As they did on 2007’s Lovin’ Pretty Women, the Steep Canyon Rangers again demonstrate that a band can be musically innovative while reaching into the past. Like other younger bands, Steep Canyon Rangers straddle the blurred edges of traditional and progressive bluegrass; that they do so as successfully as they do is a testament to their continued and expanding appeal.
Like I did while listening to Deep In the Shade over and over, I think you’ll find yourself exclaiming, “Damn, that’s good!”
by Donald Teplyske