Black Music Matters Festival

Steep Canyon Rangers

North Carolina Songbook – 2020 (Yep Roc)

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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CDs by Steep Canyon Rangers

The mandolin and fiddle instrumental break during "Stand By Me," exemplifies what makes Steep Canyon Rangers' "Songbook" something special. "Stand By Me" has likely already been covered to death. You may say that until you reach this instrumental insertion, which - for a moment - may make you believe this supportive lyric was always part of a bluegrass song. Steep Canyon Rangers plays an album of all covers, recorded live at MerleFest 2019, and it's consistently and endearingly an eclectic effort.

The surprising fun continues with "Blue Monk," which finds these bluegrass players taking on jazz icon Thelonious Monk. Steep Canyon Rangers also collaborate with comedian/banjoist Steve Martin, but this collection of instrumentally challenging selections proves these players are by no means Martin's mere backing band. Elsewhere, the act successfully recreates James Taylor's cowboy ballad, "Sweet Baby James."

While this collection includes a few lovable outliers, it also features a few tracks that fit snug within the group's stylistic wheelhouse. There's the upbeat Earl Scruggs/Charlie Poole gem, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," Elizabeth Cotton's "Shake Sugaree" and the sweet closer, Doc and Rosalee Watson's "Your Lone Journey." This last song contrasts with all the preceding instrumental fireworks, by giving the listener a relatively simple melody and beautiful vocal harmonies to enjoy.

It's easy to love Steep Canyon Rangers for their musical prowess. This album of North Carolina-related songs will make you love them even more.