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Steep Canyon Rangers

Out in the Open – 2018 (Ramseur)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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Some two full decades after coming together as a group of North Carolina college buddies who wanted to start their own bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers continue to find themselves faced with a dilemma of sorts: while they are at this point perhaps the best known bluegrass band in the country, perhaps even the world, a sizable portion of their renown is amongst people who know them mainly as "Steve Martin's backup band," by virtue of their longtime association with the veteran comedian and actor whose resume of talents includes novelist, playwright - and banjo player. That's certainly not a bad problem to have, and like its eight predecessors, this new "solo" album (though their first few efforts came well before they hooked up with Martin) once again finds them evolving and branching out from their "traditionalist" beginnings.

Though Graham Sharp's banjo and Nicky Sanders' fiddle still form the core of the Rangers' sound (and Sanders proves once again that he's among the most dynamic and versatile fiddlers in the business), their gradual addition of percussion and other touches like keyboards in the past few years have carried them beyond the boundaries of bluegrass (wherever it is we've decided those are these days) into uncharted territory - "Americana" doesn't quite seem to fit, and it's a term that is becoming overused anyway. What's "out in the open" here is a sound that appeals across a spectrum that includes bluegrass, old time, mainstream country and modern folk music.

A major element in this is the quality of the material, and the band continues to rely heavily on Sharp's songwriting talents - 8 of the 12 cuts here are his, and like his previous work, are literate and evocative well beyond what's typically found in the singer-songwriter genre. "Shenandoah Valley," for example, is on its surface a lighthearted tune about enjoying a day in the country, but voiced by a young Marine about to ship out on a tour of duty. Likewise, "Roadside Anthems" and "Farmers and Pharaohs" tell compelling stories, and all are set to arrangements that depart nicely from the standard bluegrass "verse-break-verse" scheme. More than just songs, they're vocal and instrumental suites that blend seamlessly.

Paradoxically, though, along the lines of "less is sometimes more," perhaps the most striking track is a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Let Me Die In My Footsteps," a vocal quartet backed only with acoustic guitar. Though they've always been a band composed of several fine parts, the Rangers again have demonstrated the old adage of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.