Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CD Review: Steep Canyon Rangers - Deep in the Shade

Way back in high school, I had a social studies teacher who would, every month, bring in members of our high school band to introduce us to the sounds of bluegrass. By doing so he hoped to save us from pop-culture and help perpetuate the traditions of Bill Monroe and Bobby Osborne - and, it was during these sessions in which I first heard "Rocky Top" and "My Little Georgia Rose". Many years later, he most be proud - for bluegrass is experiencing a major renaissance with the popularity of Dailey & Vincent, Dale Ann Bradley, Sam Bush, as well as the subject of this review: the Steep Canyon Rangers. The band emerged out of Asheville, North Carolina to be awarded the ’Emerging Artist of the Year’ in 2006 at the IBMA awards. The Rangers are comprised of Woody Platt (guitar and lead vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo, harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin and harmony vocals), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass and harmony vocals) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle and harmony vocals) - your typical string ensemble. And they hope to continue the old school traditional bluegrass style, but bring it to the largest audience possible. At times they fuse blues, roots, and country into their overall sound, all the while maintaining bluegrass traditions. And their latest CD, Deep in the Shade, continues this trend.

The CD is produced by famed songwriter and recording artist, Ronnie Bowman, but what got my attention even more is that, even though Woody Platt sings lead vocals, he didn't pen any of the tracks. Instead, Graham Sharp authored a majority of the songs, with the remaining coming from Mr. Humphrey and Mr. sanders. "Have Mercy', the first track, immediately highlights the great harmonies that are apparent throughout the album. Plus some nice fiddle playing. They transition to "newer" grass in "I Thought That She Loved Me" with less harmonies but more jamming. They slow it down with "The Mountain's Gonna Sing"; what a peaceful song - /Rock Me Off To Sleep/. One of my favorites. They celebrate the thought of returning home in "Turn Up the Bottle", where we first here guitar and banjo picking elevated to the level as the fiddle. Get your dancing shoes on for this one. "Nowhere to Lay Low" is the first track with an outside influence - an alt-country feel. Love the transition between the mandolin and banjo. The a cappella, Sylvie, is excellent - showcases the amazing vocal harmonies and range of the band members. This gospel song is my favorite track - sad to hear the song end. "There Ain't No Easy Street" contains some clever songwriting that I can relate to: /u-turns all around/been looking for a short cut/ but dead end is all I found/every light turns from green to red/. Not surprisingly, the instrumental "Mourning Dove" showcases Sanders on the fiddle as it "talks" to us, but there's also some fine mandolin picking. They cover Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known" giving the outlaw country song a string feel. The last three tracks are very similar in that they provide us more tight harmonies and intertwining of the fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. This is a product of a professional band that easily transition from instrumental solos without missing a beat.

In sum, this is a CD which will keep Steep Canyon Rangers' fans very happy. And as the band continues to expand its outreach this fan base will grow proportionally.

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