Steep Canyon Rangers - Morning Shift
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Morning Shift (Yep Roc, 2023)

Steep Canyon Rangers

Reviewed by John Lupton

Just about a quarter-century ago, the Steep Canyon Rangers arrived on the bluegrass scene as one of the freshest new, young bands on the circuit, a quartet of former University of North Carolina students with a firm grounding in the traditions of the music, yet unafraid to venture off into uncharted territory. More than a dozen albums later – not to mention critically acclaimed collaborations with legendary comedian and banjo player Steve Martin – the Rangers are back with their first album of the post-Covid era, a collection of a dozen tracks highlighting the variety and versatility they've been known for.

As is the way, especially in bluegrass, the names and faces have changed over the years. Founding bassist Charles Humphrey III left in 2017, and original lead singer and guitarist Woody Platt departed in 2022, their slots ably filled here by Barrett Smith and Aaron Burdett, respectively. Twenty years after signing on, Nicky Sanders is still a startlingly good fiddler, and the addition of Michael Ashworth as percussionist a decade ago brought a new dimension to the band that still resonates on the new disc.

The heart of the "Steeps'" sound, though, continues to be the mandolin work of Mike Guggino and the banjo playing and songwriting of founding member Graham Sharp, who wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 12 songs.

In a genre of music that some view as overloaded with overworked themes and metaphors – "cabins on the hill", and such – Sharp continues to produce material that is deep, evocative and entirely cliché-free.

The two standout examples: "Second In Line (Junior)", a tale of a resentful son who, despite the fact his powerful father provides him a life of relative luxury, feels he's the one being taken advantage of (and, by the way, he's married to his half-sister); and "Recommend Me" (co-written with Burdett), a desperate prayer by a fugitive to his wife as the law closes in on him, asking her to "defend me" and "recommend me."

Other engaging tracks include Burdett's "Above My Burdens," a classic guitar and mandolin gospel quartet on which he's joined by Guggino, Ashworth and Sharp, and the lone instrumental, a medley titled "Old Stone House/Handlebars/Chimney Rock" that gives Sanders, especially, an opportunity to strut his stuff.

There's a tendency among many who have only seen or heard the Steep Canyon Rangers in tandem with Steve Martin to think of them as Martin's "backup band," but it's more accurate to think of them as collaborators. From their earliest days, they've always forged their own path and maintained their own identity. That still comes through loud and clear on "Morning Shift."

CDs by Steep Canyon Rangers

Morning Shift, 2023 Arm in Arm, 2020 North Carolina Songbook, 2020 Be Still Moses, 2020 Out in the Open, 2018 Radio, 2015 Tell The Ones I Love, 2013 Nobody Knows You, 2012 Deep in the Shade, 2009 Lovin' Pretty Women, 2007 One Dime at a Time, 2005

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