Whenever a band has a shift in membership, it’s generally bound to have some sort of impact, either for better or for worse. Steep Canyon Rangers haven’t been immune to that particular situation, but fortunately, they’ve managed to emerge without any shift or setbacks.
Nevertheless, the loss of Woody Platt, a mainstay of the outfit from the beginning, gave some cause for concern. After all, he was one of the band’s primary vocalists, as well as its guitarist, and as such, he was considered one of the group’s most prominent personalities.
Not surprisingly then, new recruit Aaron Burdlett had formidable shoes to fill. That’s never an easy task, but given the fact that he can claim a previous string of solo albums, he could hardly be considered a novice. Morning Shift, the band’s much anticipated new album on Yep Roc Records, finds him seamlessly fitting into the fold alongside singer, songwriter and banjo player Graham Sharp, mandolin player Mike Guggino, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Ashworth, fiddler Nicky Sanders, and bassist Barrett Smith. Consequently, the Steeps are easily able to procure their usual quotient of uptempo bluegrass, beautiful balladry and arched Americana.
As in the past, Sharp contributes the lion’s share of the material, occasionally with help from his colleagues, but Burdlett offers his input as well. A cover of Robbie Fulks’ wistful Fare Thee Well, California Gals adds to the familiarity factor given its ready refrain, but credit is also due producer Darrell Scott, whose deft touch and articulate arrangements make for a song-centric album. Not that their instrumental acumen takes second place — a rousing medley combining three original instrumentals (Old Stone House, Handlebars, and Chimney Rock) makes it clear they’re as adept as always in the picking department. So too, the high harmonies that echo through Above My Burdens find them still paying homage debt their archival influences. Ghost of Glasgow references The Band, a common additive in most Steep Canyon Rangers albums, while Birds of Ohio and Recommend Me share Sharp’s stoic, deep-throated delivery, close-knit harmonies and tender touches.
As always, there’s no shortage in terms of exuberance or exhalation. Alabama Calling has a boogie-like beginning in its opening bars, and like Morning Shift, it provides another example of the band’s infectious energy. Mostly though, they tap a trademark sound that combines instrumental acumen and engaging melodies. So while the Steep Canyon Rangers may have a high bar to live up to, Morning Shift fortunately finds them well up to that task.