It goes without saying that the Steep Canyon Rangers are in the forefront of those artists who have helped in the transition from bluegrass to grassicana, sharing their reverence for their roots while establishing their own contemporary credence. There’s no more ideal example of that dedication to cause than this live eight song set recorded this past April at MerleFest during their main stage performance. The festival’s theme revolved around the yearlong celebration of North Carolina music, and as proud native sons of that state, they covered songs that aptly reflect the lingering legacy of their home state.
That said, the songs they chose are a varied bunch — Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, Elizabeth Cotten’s classic Shake Sugaree, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, the vintage bluegrass standard Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, and, most challenging of all, Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk. To their credit, the band carry them off with their usual aplomb, and while the material was inevitably introduced by others, the Steeps’ impeccable arrangements, deft instrumental interplay, and absolutely assured vocal harmonies succeed in making each offering their own. The fact that this was a one time only performance makes it all the more remarkable.
The main takeaway here is the devotion and dedication that the Steep Canyon Rangers have always invested in their efforts. While North Carolina Songbook provides a bit of a detour from the trajectory they’ve taken up until now, it’s a remarkable respite regardless, and one that continues to underscore the exceptional reputation they’ve managed to accrue over the space of the past 20 years. Whether they’re retracing the heartfelt strains of Sweet Baby James or the rapid fire refrain of Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, the consistency of their craft never falters, and the sheer dexterity with which they apply their skills leaves an indelible impression.
Of course, the anticipation for a new Steep Canyon Rangers album with all original offerings is still highly anticipated, and one can only hope that a long wait won’t be required. In the interim however, this abbreviated effort fills the gap both credibly and convincingly. Quite frankly, there’s no better band equiped to connect past with present while blurring whatever divide remains in-between.
North Carolina Songbook was a special Yep Roc release for Record Store Day Black Friday, in a limited run of 1500 LPs which can be found at participating music retailers now. It will be released soon on all digital outlets as well.