Just a note of apology before I dive into my writing about the SCR's latest album. I haven't been posting frequently to Fervor Coulee Bluegrass of late. Making a living is taking its toll, and of course my 'real' career must take precedence over writing. No other reason- I continue to enjoy writing about bluegrass music: I just haven't had the time of late. I hope to be back in the groove soon, and do appreciate everyone who checks in regularly and contacts me with music to review, updates to share, and friendly electronic communication. Feel free to drop me a line at fervorcoulee[at]shaw[dot]ca. Thanks. Now, to Steve Martin's pals.
Steep Canyon Rangers "Nobody Knows You" Rounder
With appearances on the top late night shows courtesy of their relationship with Steve Martin, a Grammy nomination, and as current International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainers of the Year- again, with Martin- it should come as no surprise that North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers are well poised this spring to deliver a new album.
It has been close to three years since the Steep Canyon Rangers released "Deep In The Shade." In the intervening years they have continued their development as one of the most dynamic bluegrass outfits. They were no small part of the crossover success Steve Martin experienced in 2011, contributing both songs and talent to his "Rare Bird Alert" album and tour.
"Nobody Knows You" is the still-youthful band's seventh release outside of "Rare Bird Alert" and first for Rounder. Gary Paczosa, who has most recently worked with Sarah Jarosz, Crooked Still, and the Infamous Stringdusters, shares the producer's chair with the band this time out, and his ear- well attuned to modern acoustic sounds- takes the quintet a bit further than they have explored on their previous releases.
Still, "Nobody Knows You" is consistent with what we've come to expect from Steep Canyon Rangers. Woody Platt and Graham Sharp are as distinctive and powerful a one-two lead vocal combo as any modern bluegrass band could desire. As instrumentalists, the group has few peers with Nicky Saunders' fiddling and Sharp's banjo work being especially impressive.
The album begins expectedly with a pair of radio-friendly bluegrass hoppers, the title track and Rescue Me. Both are well-executed, appealing songs but neither has the immediate charm and character of previous hits including One Dime at a Time or Have Mercy. Easy to Love drifts further afield with a more universal Americana sound and sharper lyrics.
Between Midnight and the Dawn is the album's first drop-dead, gorgeous song. Utilizing a hypnotic call and response vocal approach quite foreign to most bluegrass recordings, and in fact the vocals remind one of two late-night AM signals vying for supremacy, this may be the album's most interesting track.
With only a single non-original included- Tim Hardin's Reputation- the group manages to cover significant ground within their strong original material. Each is obviously a Steep Canyon Ranger song, but none are so closely related in sound that they appear indistinguishable from those that surround it. Even when visiting their roots, as is the case with an updating of Knob Creek- a tune first recorded by the band a decade ago- the Rangers succeed in imparting a palatable and keen freshness.
Not a great album, perhaps, but certainly an enjoyable one. "Nobody Knows You" challenges the conventional parameters of bluegrass music in a manner that retains more of the tradition than it discards.