PUBLISHED ON NOVEMBER 15, 2007:
Rhythm & Views
By JIM LIPSON
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STEEP CANYON RANGERS
Lovin\' Pretty Women (Rebel)
This record is so well-executed, it begs the question: \"Who are these guys?\"
From the get-go, it\'s clear this is neither a traditional bluegrass group nor a bunch of super studs brought together to trade licks. Instead, what the Rangers are is an actual band. They are so comfortable and adept at anticipating every quick curve and turn in a tune, these songs manage to outshine their individual talents, which given the musicianship involved is no small feat. It comes as no shock, then, when the liner notes reveal this is the fourth album by this quintet, which has remained intact since they first got together in college.
Instrumentally, the fiddle, banjo and mandolin all take turns meshing together and filling spaces between the words, but it is lead vocalist Woody Platt\'s rhythm guitar that drives this CD and makes you forget there are no drums on what is essentially a very rhythmic recording. The singing is delivered with a passion that matches the accompaniment.
Almost all of the songs are original, with several making use of the requisite imagery for country, gospel and bluegrass. At the same time, the Rangers leave no doubt that they are part of a new generation of bluegrass bands. There is \"Don\'t Ease Me In,\" a traditional arranged by the Grateful Dead. It\'s here you finally get the sense these guys have been listening to other things besides Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. While the father of bluegrass may not have approved, when he hears this CD, he\'ll probably be tappin\' his foot up in bluegrass heaven.
The Steep Canyon Rangers\' deep dedication to bluegrass is heard in every note they play. But it\'s the band\'s amazing songwriting talent that makes them truly exceptional. With a sound firmly rooted in bluegrass tradition, their ability to draw musical elements from hard core honky-tonk, classic country, and blues sets them apart from the rest of the pack.
While Steep Canyon\'s fierce commitment to traditional bluegrass audiences is obvious, the band is also dedicated to bringing their music to the next generation of fans. They have taken bluegrass to rock clubs, jam band festivals and other non-traditional venues, winning new converts at every turn.
The Rangers are young, ambitious men: Graham Sharp (banjo, lead and harmony vocals), Woody Platt (guitar and lead vocals), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass and harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin and harmony vocals), & Nicky Sanders (fiddle and harmony vocals). Constant touring, intense rehearsing, and most importantly, creative songwriting, sets them apart from the field.
On One Dime At A Time, the Rangers emerge with their own distinctive approach to bluegrass, one that honors the music\'s traditional sound while taking a giant step in a style and direction all their own. The album was recorded live in the studio with first time producer Mike Bub, long-time bass player for the Del McCoury Band. The group credits Bub for his aid in shaping the arrangements, sharpening the vocals, and getting a live feel in the studio. \'We all gathered in a circle around a couple of microphones,\' Graham Sharp said. \'No separate booths, no headphones, no separate tracks. You can really hear the natural blend of our instruments and voices.\'
As on previous albums, most of the material on One Dime At A Time was written by the band. \'The Ghost of Norma Jean\' by Charles Humphrey is a sequel to the gruesome \'Norma Jean\' from the Rangers\' last album. Humphrey\'s \'Restless Nights,\' is straightforward, hard-hitting and full of emotion, another in the long line of bluegrass heartbreak songs. Graham Sharp\'s \'Slow Burn\', reminiscent of a George Jones number, another song about heartache, demonstrates the close relation of country music and bluegrass. And speaking of country music, the title track, by Dottie Bruce and Jerry Chesnut, comes from a Del Reeves recording that the band heard on the radio during a long ride between gigs. The group loved the song\'s bluesy, honky-tonk feel and was surprised to find that nobody has ever recorded it as a bluegrass tune. The Rangers heard The Sullivan Family\'s version of \'Evangeline\' at a festival in North Carolina and felt it fit right into their repertoire. The Del McCoury Band\'s Jason Carter joins Sanders for an exquisite twin fiddle performance. The Robbie Robertson penned tune was originally recorded on The Band\'s historic Last Waltz album. The spiritual \'I Can\'t Sit Down\', written by Wade Mainer, was recorded a cappella and really showcases the Rangers\' vocal harmony and arranging talents. (The 98 year old Mainer, incidentally, was a big influence on the legendary Ralph Stanley). The lone instrumental, \'Big Cypoophus\', shows off the bands top flight picking skills. Simply put, there\'s not a weak track on this album; it\'s real music played by real musicians in real time, full of the genuine feeling and sparkling musicianship that marks the best of bluegrass bands.
Although there are no overnight success stories in the field of bluegrass, the Steep Canyon Rangers have come a long way since turning professional in 2001. Sharp, Platt and Humphrey met as undergraduates at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, drawn together by their love of acoustic music. As their impromptu jams progressed, they were drawn more and more to bluegrass and started learning the genre\'s classic tunes. Mike Guggino, a friend of Platt\'s, joined shortly thereafter and the band started gigging regularly. Since none of them had ever been in a band before, they felt free to blaze their own path, generating most of their own material and creating a style all their own. By the time they graduated, they were booking enough gigs to eschew the 9 to 5 and become full-time musicians. Their first three albums Old Dreams & New Dreams, Mr. Taylor\'s New Home and The Steep Canyon Rangers (their first for Rebel) all combine original songs with carefully chosen covers. Now joined by California fiddler Nicky Sanders,\'One Dime At A Time\' follows the band\'s formula with another collection of diverse, mostly self-penned material guaranteed to please long time fans and introduce younger listeners to the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass. While maintaining a traditional sound, the Steep Canyon Rangers have put their own unmistakable mark on the music.