Bluegrass music is conservative in the best sense of the word, refining traditions into clearer, deeper forms. Players start out by learning the standards and continue to play them while adding slowly to that core repertory. Bands that play mostly original material in a traditional vein are rare; those that combine distinctive original material with superb instrumental work, impassioned vocals, a flexible, breathing sense of ensemble with classic three-part harmonies, and above all a deep knowledge of the tradition are on their way to big things. The Steep Canyon Rangers have been building an impressive catalog of original yet traditional bluegrass songs ever since they got together as college students in North Carolina about seven years ago. Of all the young bluegrass bands who have cast their lot with the classic sound, they seem most likely to be in it for the long haul.
Many of the group’s songs tread the familiar rocky road of bluegrass romantic melancholy, often with unusually pungent images in the refrains: “Put down the bottle, pick up the blues,” or “I’m standin’, starin’ at the window; all I see is rain./Since she left me standin’, looks like I’m livin’ in the pane.” They usually do one a cappella gospel song per album. The unusual streak in their repertory is a sharp southern populism that hasn’t appeared often lately but that was plenty common in the country music of the Great Depression. “The corporation likes to say that everything’s all right, dig yourself a hole, get out of sight,” goes “Call the Captain,” their modern-day take on “Take This Hammer,” and the title track of their Mr. Taylor’s New Home album tells of an unmourned industrialist, murdered by parties unknown. Just about all their songs are hard hitting in one way or another, and even when pure sentimentality appears, a given in bluegrass, it’s used with humor or with a kick that makes you aware of the strong sentiment that was originally behind the sentimentality.
Oakland Community College puts on a winter bluegrass series in a cafeteria at its Highland Lakes campus, and I saw the Steep Canyon Rangers perform there last year. It’s a pretty sedate crowd, composed of the folks who spend summers lumbering from one bluegrass festival to another in their RVs and settle into short-legged lawn chairs when they get there. But there was a heightened level of attention in the air for these original-minded traditionalists. With the Duhks and the Infamous Stringdusters, both fine contemporary groups on the edge of bluegrass, coming to the Ark in July, I hope folks will turn out there on Wednesday, July 23, for some young North Carolinians who are finding plenty of space for themselves in the music’s traditional forms.
[Review published July 2008]