In many ways, Steep Canyon Ranger's remarkable collaboration with the Asheville Symphony marks a turning point in the band's career. It's the culmination of a trajectory that has brought them from their place among the contemporary bluegrass/nu-grass elite to a new position as a mainstream ensemble. That's evidenced by the fact that at this point, their songs are no longer confined to any genre in particular. A most unlikely union with Boyz II Men on the gospel-tinged title track of their new album is indeed an initial indication of a sudden in shift in stance.
Surprisingly though, the album finds Steep Canyon Rangers holding its own, even when the orchestration heightens the drama, and the sweep of strings adds deeper tones and textures to the proceedings. That's especially evident on several SCR songs, which have been reprised for this recording - "Radio," "Call the Captain," Blow Me Away" and "Las Vegas" in particular. The once down-home sound imbued in the original recordings is replaced by an urgency and intensity that carries the music to another dimension entirely. It's hard to say which versions work better, but it is intriguing to hear the familiar favorites take on an entirely new life of their own.
Granted, there are some that might object to the orchestra's added embellishment. Likewise, the announcement that the Rangers were working with Boyz II Men certainly raised some eyebrows as well. Yet, the experiment seems to have paid off, and indeed, "Be Still Moses" is one of the finer efforts. The additional additives aside, the band still delivers on all cylinders, affirming the fact they were a highly combustible combo to begin with. However, if one was to single anyone out in particular it would have to be singer and banjo player Graham Sharp. He comes close to dominating the proceedings, owing to the fact that he wrote the majority of the songs, and his deep, resonant vocals have a riveting effect on every song he sings.
In the end however, this is an achievement for everyone involved, band and symphony alike. Even with the heights the Steep Canyon Rangers have climbed up until now, "Be Still Moses" provides a peak performance that reflects well on them all.
Lee Zimmerman is a freelance writer and author based in Maryville, Tennessee. He also expounds on music on his web site, Stories Beyond the Music - Americana Music Reviews, Interviews & Articles. His book - Americana Music - Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an Honest Sound is available from Texas A&M University Publishing.