Over the past several years, few bluegrass bands have reached the level of acclaim which the Steep Canyon Rangers have found. Much of it is due to their frequent association with Steve Martin, but just as much or more is that, simply put, they’re good at what they do. The band members are all very talented, and their material is consistently just a few shades different from anything else that’s going on in bluegrass.
Their last album, Nobody Knows You, earned the band a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. And their new release, Tell the Ones I Love, is a fitting follow-up, with a great mixture of today’s bluegrass styles, excellent harmonies, and a few surprises as well.
The main surprise here is the addition of drums, courtesy of Jeff Sipe (formerly of Leftover Salmon) on several tracks. Of course, many bluegrass bands have been slowly adding in drums here and there since at least the 1950s, but it still is usually cause for a second listen. Camellia is one of those tracks, a fun love song with a ’70s southern groove and a nice instrumental interlude near the end. Stand and Deliver is another, with an almost-chanted delivery that stands out against the funky, fiddle-and-banjo-fueled groove. Both of these tracks are on the far side of bluegrass, and actually wouldn’t sound too out of place on a country-leaning album, but they’re definitely enjoyable – particularly thanks to Nicky Sanders’ inspired fiddling.
Come Dance, written by banjo player Graham Sharp, moves back to familiar territory, with its sweet, poetic pleading from the singer set to an uptempo contemporary bluegrass background. Lay Myself Down is another grassy, fast-paced number, pushed on by Sharp’s solid, consistent banjo. Sharp also wrote this song, which finds the singer thanking the one who stands by his side even though it’s a “hard luck place.”
Yet another Sharp-penned tune is the jazzy album closer, Las Vegas. This song has fantastic, Italian-influenced instrumentation and captures the shady, seductive side of the title city with lines like “I’m two steps over the line, king of this plastic castle and I feel like dying.” Take the Wheel has a completely different feel (more of the band’s recognizable bluegrass sound), but also features a narrator who is in a little over his head – this time because he’s been away from home too long.
There’s also one instrumental, Mike Guggino’s nicely done, firmly bluegrass Graveyard Fields. It’s dark – like the title suggests – and quickly paced, with a tight performance from the group. The band shines instrumentally both here and throughout the record, with Guggino (mandolin), Sharp (banjo), Sanders (fiddle), Woody Platt (guitar), and Charles Humphrey III (bass) coming together to create an album that will likely put the group right back in the running for this year’s major awards.
Tell the Ones I Love is not strictly bluegrass, and even when it is bluegrass, it’s not traditional. That aside, it’s an excellent album. The songwriting occasionally veers into that vague, emotion-filled land of indie music, but in general, there are solid stories to be told and feelings to be expressed. The Steep Canyon Rangers have delivered another winner, and their fans are sure to be pleased.
Graham acknowledged a contrast in the feel of this album as compared to their prior releases.
“This is definitely a different vibe for the band. We’ve never sat down as a band and said ‘our music is going to be this way or that way.’ I think Tell The Ones I Love is just a part of the natural growth for us. As writers it’s a great feeling to have a wide range of styles at your disposal. The touchstone will always be bluegrass, but, having been a band so long, I think it would be a dangerous thing for us not to keep pushing ourselves.
As a band, we’ve always had the mind-set that whether the audience is diehard bluegrass or hardly familiar with it at all, we’re going to play what we think is our best music, rather than try to change what we do to try to fit in. Rangers fans have been amazingly supportive over the years as we’ve tried to stay true to the music we love to write and play, and we hope we can occasionally reward their trust.”
For more information on the Steep Canyon Rangers, visit their website at www.steepcanyon.com. Their new album is out now on Rounder Records, and can be purchased from a variety of online music retailers.