Yee-haw! The Steep Canyon Rangers are riding again! This time, they are out in the open, the great wide open! Thank goodness, because nothing about their new album, Out in the Open, should be concealed in any way. Like the bold, beautiful buffalo standing all alone on the record cover for all to see, the Rangers openly bear their bold, beautiful skills, and souls, on their latest offering for all to take in.
Out in the Open is filled with rip-roaring picking, weep-inducing melodies, breath-taking harmonies, and poet laureate-like lyrics. All are signature Steeps traits. You do not get Grammy nominations and inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame unless you are stellar, unless you shine, unless you are unique. The Steep Canyon Rangers are all of these and they make that abundantly clear as they stunningly lay out their craft from the first note on Out in the Open to the last.
The Rangers came together in their college years when Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, and Charles R. Humphrey III were at UNC Chapel Hill. They learned bluegrass together, grabbed their fellow Rangers (Nicky Sanders, Mike Guggino, and Mike Ashworth), hit it off, and hit the road to become one of the hottest progressive bluegrass bands on the scene. While expert traditional players, they constantly transcend the boundaries and dive head first into different pools of folk, Americana, bluesy, jam, and… is that Cajun I hear? Turns out these waters are theirs to keep; they have their own special blend now, much to the delight of their throngs of fans. Out in the Open is a diverse collection of a dozen tunes, each one of them laying it on the line about who the Steep Canyon Rangers have become, which is nothing short of excellent.
Woody Platt graciously gave us a little behind-the-scenes on how this album came to be. In true Ranger fashion, galloping from one adventure to the next, Woody first explained, “When we finish up a project, we tend to almost immediately start working on new songs. And, it is a really fun, long process. We don’t rush it. We kick songs around in the band in the back of the bus and backstage for months until they finally take shape.” When they get to the studio, they typically have six or eight more songs than they need, he said, crediting the band’s prolific primary songwriters: Graham and Charles. Charles wrote three songs on the new project but then moved on. The Rangers have welcomed Barrett Smith, another college buddy, as their new bassist.
The Steeps have long-used an inclusive process to create their songs. “Everybody gets to have input on tempo, time signature, key, and chord progressions,” Woody said. “Our songwriters have always been really, really generous and let everybody’s suggestions be heard and tried. I think that’s what gives us our sound in the end: that everybody gets to weigh in on it,” he explained. It is a simple recipe for sure, but with it, the Rangers have served up platter after platter of absolute delicacies, and those on Out in the Open are perfectly prepared and superbly tasteful.
For example, Going Midwest, the tune on the record about what happens to Nick Carraway, is deservedly getting a lot of attention. It is a great example of kicking tunes around until they are fully cooked. Woody explained that the band was playing the tune many different ways, as four voices, as a full band, with drums, without drums. Then, he said,
“[s]omewhere at some gig, Mike Ashworth and I were actually sitting in a bathroom because it sounded so good: this tile bathroom connected to Mike’s dressing room. And, we just played it with two guitars and it really sounded good. It just had this thing, and we had never had just a two-guitar kind of ballad approach to a song. Graham comes in on a little banjo part in the middle just for a second and sings harmony. It is just one of those things where less was more.”
Thus, became one of the most exquisite tunes to hit your ears and tug your heart toward thoughts of what could have been.
Rangers by rule don’t mess around, and the Steep Canyon Rangers certainly don’t when making a record. Nope. They tend to focus on every little detail, Woody explained. With Out in the Open, however, without foregoing any assiduousness, the Rangers took an entirely new approach in their recording. “We cut it live,” Woody said, “which is different than anything we have done in the past.” Say what? Unbelievable!
“We tracked the vocals and the instruments in one room all at the same time, no overdub opportunities. Just kind of get it right, and that was fun. Our producer, Joe Henry, who never worked with us before, and who is a really well respected producer: it was his idea. He said in so many words: You guys are a live band. You play over 100 shows a year. You have this ability to put on a show, so why don’t you just sit around the mic and make a record.”
And, that is what the Rangers did. Mind-blowing when you hear the album. Woody mused, “Maybe what we lost in total perfection, we gained in energy and authenticity and just feeling.” We could not agree more, Woody, except that nothing was lost. Apparently, a band can reach a certain level of musicianship, cohesion, and depth where it can just up and record a collection of complex songs live and end up with an elegant tapestry tightly woven with the threads of our time. The Rangers have long been at that level, and we are so glad they rose to the challenge of doing the live recording. The integrity in Out in the Open is palpable, and we reap the benefits.
Another job-dropping fact Woody shared is that he, Mike and Graham laid down Going Midwest on their first take in the studio. Just nailed it on the first try. Wow! Woody candidly filled us in,
“I remember thinking it felt pretty good, but, honestly, I thought we were still kind of learning it. We were thinking we would still take a couple runs at it and see how it shakes out. When we finished the first take, Joe just leaned up to the mic and said into our headphones, ‘Done. Y’all are done.’ There were a couple people emotional. It was a moment.
We could have done it five more times, but that one just had the raw kind of emotion.”
The entire album is teeming with that raw emotion from beginning to end, which is one of the reasons, per Woody, it is named what it is. With this record, Woody said,
“We are out in the open. There are no smoke and mirrors. There are no studio tricks. We are just standing in a circle. It is the band revealed. To me, that is one of the reasons that title made sense: because it actually tells the story of how the record was made. It is all just right there in front of you.”
Just them and the truth.
Out in the Open is not only the perfect title, it is a perfect song too. A unique one for the Rangers for sure with Nicky on piano. Yes, piano. Combine that with the harmonica, the bluesy beat, and low vocals and the result is swampy goodness. Each track is a perfect song in its own way though, telling a different story and highlighting different sides of the SCR boys.
Their energy on Let Me Out of this Town has you wildly hopping up and down. Hold on tight, especially for each of their compelling, cascading contributions to the jam towards the end. You heed the fiddle’s opening cry of Can’t Get Home and join in on its nostalgic journey, nodding in agreement with a smile and a tear at the genuine lyrics. Woody’s classic singing has you singing along with a new mantra, Love Harder, as each Ranger plays his hearty heart out one after the other on this one. Their unmatched harmonies paired with Woody’s honest voice and their precise, masterful playing gently gather you in on Best of Me and When She Was Mine.
And, Roadside Anthems stops you in your tracks. When all the Steeps kick in on that second line, you are breathless, peering up at the heavens. How do we get there? Well, that pining fiddle, emotive mando, and beseeching banjo just slay you, sending you well on your way. The Steeps throw in Dylan’s timeless and oh-so relevant Let Me Die in My Footsteps, as their only cover before leaving us dancing with some boogie-woogie on The Speed We’re Traveling.
True to form, the Rangers mine their mother lode of talents and let them shine radiantly: this time, entirely unrestricted in the great wide open. So, all you farmers and pharaohs and everyone in between, get this record stat so you, too, can stare into that horizon like that buffalo knowing only the best things, like benevolence, brilliance and truth, are coming when the Rangers ride your way.
Out in the Open will be released on January 26, 2018. Check www.steepcanyon.com and get out there with the Rangers.