A.K.A. Steve Martin’s back-up-band to the wider, non-bluegrass public, Steep Canyon Rangers is simply as good as a tradition-based modern bluegrass band gets. They cover all the bases and then some, instrumentally, vocally and compositionally.
Ten of the 12 numbers included here are originals, written or co-written by bassist Charles Humphrey III or banjoist/singer Graham Sharp, the lone instrumental coming from fiddler/singer Nicky Sanders. Mandolinist/singer Mike Guggino and guitarist/lead singer Woody Platt complete the classic quintet line-up. And their sometimes-boss, banjoist/actor/funny man Martin, wrote the laudatory liner note.
SCR doesn’t range far from traditional territory, but explores it thoroughly, stretching slightly on Sharp’s “Mourning Dove,” hitting all the notes beautifully on their a capella rendition of Leadbelly’s “Sylvie,” and swinging with charming insouciance through Merle Haggard’s “I Must Be Someone Else You’ve Known.”
That leaves the original vocal tunes, and they add up to a pleasing batch. Particularly effective is their updating of the classic depression-era style number, describing the current downturn with clever wordplay without trivializing the seriousness of the subject.
No reservations here, and it is a bit of a coup that Martin chose them for his very high-profile foray into bluegrass, bringing them exposure rare for any bluegrass band. Those exposed to this album and to bluegrass for the first time because of it will be getting a healthy dose of the real thing. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottsville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com) DR