Written by 12:24 pm 2020, Music

Steep Canyon Rangers: A Carolina Collaboration

Bluegrass Aces Steep Canyon Rangers Enlist Asheville Symphony on New Album

Since forming in 2000, the members of North Carolina string band Steep Canyon Rangers have continued to broaden their take on bluegrass.

Cover photo courtesy the Steep Canyon Rangers

Since forming in 2000, the members of North Carolina string band Steep Canyon Rangers have continued to broaden their take on bluegrass. In its early years, the fleet-fingered sextet, which won a Grammy in 2013 for Best Bluegrass Album, seemed intent on being reverently traditional, but as time has passed the group has evolved to incorporate a growing palette of roots music styles. 

The relatively recent addition of drummer Mike Ashworth has given the western North Carolina-based band’s live shows some added momentum, and in the studio the sextet has embraced outside help from notable producers, including Dobro legend Jerry Douglas, who worked with the band on 2015’s Radio, and prolific singer-songwriter and studio craftsman Joe Henry, who helmed 2018’s Out in the Open, the band’s most cohesive meshing of  hard-driving bluegrass with elements country and folk to date. 

This spring the group will move in yet another new direction with Be Still Moses, an album set to be released on March 6 that features the fast-picking crew enlisting help from the Asheville Symphony to rework some of their best-known tunes. On standouts like “Call the Captain” and “Farmers and Pharaohs” songs grounded in earnest front-porch simplicity are elevated with dramatic swells of strings. The gospel-minded title track—originally found on Nobody Knows You, the album that earned Steep Canyon its Grammy—gets additional new perspective thanks to emotive vocals from Philadelphia soul singers Boyz II Men.

The idea for the record was sparked in part by Asheville producer Michael Selverne, who wanted to initiate a cross-genre project between his home city’s symphony and members of its thriving roots-music community. Eager to participate, the members of Steep Canyon saw the pairing as a chance to give old favorites from their back catalog some fresh character.

“It was such a cool yet unusual experience to work as a band on a collection of songs we’ve recorded over the years and have performed live hundreds of times,” explained Steep Canyon Rangers’ primary singer/guitarist Woody Platt in a statement about the project. “This brought the songs to a new place with an entirely new life and sound.”

Steep Canyon Rangers will celebrate the new release with a hometown show in Asheville, N.C., at the Salvage Station on May 8. The band also hosts its annual Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, N.C., from Sept. 11-13. 

Steep Canyon: Songs through the Years

“Bluegrass Blues”
Name-checking bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and lamenting the tough but irresistible call of the road for a touring musician, this early tune from the band’s 2005 eponymous album sounds like a mission statement to carry tradition forward.

“Rescue Me”
A standout from 2012’s Nobody Knows You, which won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album the following year, “Rescue Me” blends progressive newgrass picking with lyrics that call for help during hard times. 

The title track from the 2015 album of the same name, which was produced by Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, is a breezy country reflection on the youthful influence of the FM dial. The nostalgic sentiment is uplifted on the version augmented by the Asheville Symphony found on the band’s latest release, Be Still Moses.  

“Out in the Open”
The title track to the band’s 2018 studio effort is a refreshing confessional about embracing truth that mingles the dusty swagger of honky-tonk piano with campfire harmonica and a gospel chorus.

“Going Midwest” 
Also from Out in the Open, this stunning, slow-burning ballad, features a spare guitar melody and hearty, earnest narration from lead singer Woody Platt.

A fresh single released earlier this year showcases Steep Canyon’s longstanding partnership with comedic icon Steve Martin. Over a decade ago, Martin, an accomplished banjo player, attended the band’s annual Mountain Song Festival and eventually tapped the group to be his backing band for recordings and performances that blend hot picking with musical comedy. 

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