Steep Canyon Rangers, Steep Canyon Rangers (Rebel)
by: Steve Horowitz
Critics disparage bluegrass music by saying that it all sounds the same. The same charge is often hurled at the blues, another type of music that allows individuality of particular artists to exist amidst pre-given structural constraints. While generic bluegrass and blues music does exist, to write off whole genres for such specious reasons would be as dumb as not watching foreign films because they all have subtitles. Besides that ignores the pleasures of formula, the joy one receives by knowing what will happen next and what it sounds like. The Steep Canyon Rangers play bluegrass the way it's meant to be played: tight instrumental licks and high lonesome vocals. The former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill classmates don't do anything particularly distinctive, other than sing as well as pick and strum their stringed instruments so well. The band makes the kind of bluegrass that one swears one heard a million times before, but just can't place where or when one's heard it.
Speaking of bluegrass and the blues, SCR combine the two styles on one tune, the appropriately entitled "Bluegrass Blues." Penned by stand-up bassist Charles R. Humphrey III, "Bluegrass Blues" tells the story of a bluegrass musician playing on the road every night when he'd rather be home in Carolina with the one he loves ("Making music every night/now I'm missing you"). The song sounds just like what a listener might expect by such a song title. Woody Platt's plaintive lead vocals blends with Mike Guggino's tenor and Graham Sharp's baritone to create a sad, sad sound augmented by Platt's acoustic guitar, Guggino's mandolin, and Sharp's banjo, picking and strumming. Meanwhile, songwriter Humphrey pounds out the upright bass notes to anchor the ensemble and add gravitas to the music.
Humphrey also penned the rapid fire opening number "Living in the Pines," although banjoist Sharp wrote most of the album cuts. Sharp's "Feeling Just Like Little Dale" pays tribute to both the NASCAR driver and the early country rockabilly automobile-loving songs of musicians like Nervous Norvus (later popularized by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airman on songs like "Transfusion" and "Hot Rod Lincoln"). Sharp knows enough to keep it straight to give the humor an edge as he praises the joys of speeding in the car. Sharp also created the high octane instrumental "454," which presumably stands for the horsepower of his favorite vehicle. Guggino composed the more swinging of the discs two nonvocal cuts, "Southwind," which truly evokes the sound of the breeze through the trees.
SCR cover bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin's teary "I'll Drink No More Wine" with panache as Platt moans, "You're driving me crazy/plumb out of my mind." It's clear Platt's just playing a role in the musical melodrama, but that doesn't mean he doesn't express the pain any less than the joy he sings of in such upbeat tunes as "Lucky Streak"-although this being bluegrass, sad songs outnumber the happy ones 9 to 4, and two of those are instrumentals! Platt's picking, and that of his bandmates, keeps even the more morose tunes humming with energy. Just because one is feeling low doesn't mean one conveys this by playing slow. That's just not the bluegrass way.