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Wednesday, 18 July 2007 00:00

Steep Canyon Rangers sharpen their bluegrass skill set

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By Chris Cooper

Finding a line between respecting the bluegrass form and tradition, while gently pushing its boundaries, is a tough row to hoe, for sure. Only a handful of groups are able to really pull this off — Mountain Heart and Railroad Earth make the list easily, the former’s effort from last year being one of the most enjoyable listens to come down the “newgrass” pipeline in a long while. But my money, and most people’s I’d imagine, is on the Steep Canyon Rangers, an almost unfairly talented band of regional players whose previous recording, One Dime At A Time, attached a veritable turbo-booster to their already rapidly climbing rocket to the very heights of the bluegrass elite.

Lovin’ Pretty Women finds the Rangers sticking more to conventional bluegrass than on One Dime At A Time, but tunes like “Call The Captain” and “Don’t Ease Me In” recall that album’s occasional honky-tonk and country leanings. “Captain” in particular is a fine piece of songwriting, spinning the tale of a coalminer that can’t bring himself to continue his line of work after observing the toll it’s taking on his life and the land he’s known and loved since childhood. “Don’t Ease Me In” twangs like some lost Hank Williams track, and a better tale than harmony vocalist and banjo picker Graham Sharp’s “Desperate and Blue” of two heartbroken folks finding their way back to each other (for better or worse) would be hard to find. Actually, it’s Sharp’s keen songwriting ability that gives the rest of the Rangers a platform to let their individual talents shine, with all but four of the album’s twelve tracks written or co-written by him.

That the Steep Canyon Rangers can flat out play is no real surprise, but there’s a certain sense of refinement to Lovin’ Pretty Women, even on the lone instrumental track “Kuykendall,” that indicates even more growth as a band. Not really a barn-burning pickers extravaganza, it’s a much more melodic statement than a mere show of chops and muscle. Ah, but there’s a certain joy in hearing players that can do it all decide to let taste take the wheel — mandolinist Mike Guggino (who penned the tune) takes a strikingly syncopated and angular solo here, as does fiddler Nicky Sanders, filling his break with slippery blue notes before splitting into harmony with Guggino towards the tune’s end.

The lilting minor-key ballad “Be Still Moses” again pulls in some bluesy elements while spinning the tale of how an infant Moses found his way to the bank of the Nile. Here the Rangers take us all to church (and school for that matter) because their a cappella cadenza at the song’s close is a lesson in gospel blues and showcases one of the group’s greatest strengths: these guys have such a stunning command of harmony, they’re so good at singing with each other, that it’s tough not loose complete track of what you’re doing when they stack their voices together with such uncanny precision and soul. Check out One Dime At A Time’s “I Can’t Sit Down” for another dose of the Rangers’ harmony skills.

The quickest tune here is the album closer, “Pickin’ On Josh,” featuring Dobro playing sideman extraordinaire Randy Kohrs kicking out dazzling fills and sparring with fiddler Sanders, who burns brightly here as well with several head turning solos. Even if the majority of Lovin’ Pretty Women revolves around sophistication and traditionalism, the Steep Canyon Rangers just can’t help but go out with a bang.

With a running time just at 36 minutes, Lovin’ Pretty Women plays out pretty quick and never over stays its welcome. This isn’t just an indication of musical economy and maturity on the part of the musicians, as it could as well be a hint that seeing this group live is where you’ll really witness their depth and skill. And you won’t have to wait long, either — they’re on the road steadily from July to November, and will be appearing Aug. 2 at Asheville’s 80th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, along with many more regional gigs in the coming months. With that in mind, you’ve no excuse to take part in the picking and/or grinning these guys will be bringing our way soon.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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