Nostalgia wrapped in newgrass
This current, sometimes-chaotic age calls for some nostalgia, a harkening back to simpler times when people got excited about their radios instead of their television or iPod, and a collection of good people playing music together was all you needed. Enter Steep Canyon Rangers and their new record Radio to fill that need. Don’t be fooled by the title or the theme, there is a new sound here, but it is based in a clearly deep knowledge of the classics.
Most successful people in any creative field, including cooking, will tell you that if you don’t have a firm handle on the fundamentals, then anything new you do is not authentic or even wise to execute; it usually rings hollow and speaks to a shallow understanding of the craft in question. The Steep Canyon Rangers hail from the mountains of North Carolina where, on the right weekend night, you truly find people in the midst of impromptu bluegrass jam sessions because there always seem to be acoustic instruments just in reach. They have locale and history on their side and the chops to prove their authenticity. Just listen to any track on Radio, particularly “Blow Me Away,” and the instrumental track “Looking Glass” for some of the best examples of their picking abilities.
The musicianship comes as no surprise. Steve Martin – notorious for his wicked banjo playing – when not doing any number of other things really well – fingered them to be his partners in music. The result was a 2012 Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. Of course they won the same Grammy award for their 2013 album, Nobody Knows You. Not slowing down after these successes, this latest album marks their 9th album and their first with new member and old friend Mike Ashworth on vocals and box kit.
The album is a collection of songs with a distinctly newgrass sound. So not only have they built their sound on the classic bluegrass, but they have clearly been influenced by the band that started the whole newgrass movement, New Grass Revival. Granted, Steep Canyon Rangers don’t venture into the progressive work that Béla Fleck brought to the table, but they have a lock on producing great songs that don’t lose the feel that bluegrass should have. Lyrically the songs cover familiar ground including regret over loves lost, the urge to stay rooted, and the struggles of back breaking work and no pay. There are some forays into critique of current culture, “Where there’s a shine for greed and greed alone / that’s where you’re gonna find your immortal home.”
The record was produced by Jerry Douglas, who does some guest dobro work on “Break.” The song also features a guest appearance by Shannon Whitworth, who does a beautiful duet with her husband, guitar player Woody Platt. All in all the record is a satisfying listen for bluegrass fans who like to hear new directions of the genre while being reminded of the ground on which it was built.