Steep Canyon Rangers Latest a Bluegrass Treasure

Nobody Knows You
Rounder 1166-0649-2

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Remember when bluegrass songs were often just an excuse for instrumental breakouts? Today’s bands pay a lot more attention to the melodic and lyrical hooks of their songs, but few do so with the skill of the North Carolina-based quintet Steep Canyon Rangers. Not that there’s anything wrong with those breakouts. Mike Guggino and Graham Sharp can pick the mando and banjo with the best of them, Charles Humphrey knows how it slap the stand-up bass, Woody Platt can dazzle with his flat-picking, and Nicky Sanders adds soulful depth on fiddle. But what will linger after the instrumentals fade are the catchy tunes, the clever word play, the tight harmonies, and meaty melodies that bore themselves into your brain. The memorable banjo riff of “Rescue Me” will replay itself like the song’s chorus. Ditto the line “I always tried to do my best/I’ve mostly done the opposite,” a quiet opening prelude to some jaw-dropping breakdown banjo, mando, and fiddle. Many of the arrangements are dramatic and enigmatic, two adjectives not generally attached to bluegrass songs, a characteristic heard to great execution on “Easy to Love.” And then there’s “Natural Disaster,” a song that’s as catchy as anything on the pop charts. (”Love is a natural disaster/never get what I’m after…”) This well-produced album is one of many moods: the classic bluegrass style of “Ungrateful One,” the old-time flair of “Open Country,” the jazzy undertones of “Knob Creek,” the swingy backbeat of “Between Midnight and the Dawn,” and the pop-laced “Reputation,” which sounds like a bluegrass variant of The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride.” These guys have been riding high on the bluegrass charts, have shared bills the Dixie Chicks and Steve Martin, and were the 2011 International Blue Music Association’s “Entertainers of the Year.” It’s easy to hear why. 

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