Steep Canyon Rangers,
One Dime at a Time
(Rebel, 2005)

It never ceases to surprise me how bluegrass, a genre now six decades old, continues to replenish itself and to find interesting ways of, well, repeating itself. Yes, there is rote, exasperating bluegrass -- and no shortage of it -- and there's music played on bluegrass instruments that's spread the genre definition so thin as to have snapped it. (Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that it's cheating to call it bluegrass.) It's bands like the Steep Canyon Rangers, though, that keep the tradition on track while finding their own reserved seats on the bluegrass express.

They're a reasonably young band, made up of a trio of guys -- Woody Platt (guitar), Graham Sharp (banjo, guitar) and Charles Humphrey III (bass) -- who met a few years ago while attending the University of North Carolina, later joined by Mike Guggino (mandolin) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle). On most cuts Platt does the lead vocals, and everybody but Humphrey joins in on the splendid, tight, downhome harmonies. Both Sharp (who writes the bulk of the original material) and Humphrey (responsible for two of the songs) are exceptional composers, contributing sturdy in-the-tradition but largely cliche-untainted material. (The qualifying adverb is there courtesy of the disc's one mediocrity, the lethargic and inane "Green Eyed Lady." Given the uniform muscularity of the other cuts, its unexpectedly feeble presence manages to take the listener aback.)

The songlist is rounded out with some impressive covers, not the least of them the honkytonker title tune by Nashville writers Dottie Bruce and Jerry Chestnut, long ago a minor hit for 1960s country star Del Reeves and till now unrecorded bluegrass-style. Robbie Robertson's folk-rock ballad "Evangeline," a particularly imaginative choice (it's from the late-period Robertson-era Band), feels here as if it had been a bluegrass song since birth.

Producer Mike Bub, who for years picked bass in the Del McCoury Band, takes care to provide sufficient aural space for a live, natural, organic sound. Both grizzled bluegrass fan and neophyte will be impressed. The Steep Canyon Rangers surely have a future to which they and we can look forward.

by Jerome Clark
21 October 2006

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