Since they began, there has been a goofy quality to the Steep Canyon Rangers, though in a good way. They were five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, and good chops out to have some fun. When they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wife is a friend of a friend of the band—they became his touring band and, ever since Martin’s Rare Bird Alert (2011) they’ve been his studio band as well. As a result they’ve gone to places—Carnegie Hall, recording with Paul McCartney—that most bluegrass musicians can only ever dream of. They’ve toured big halls and done a wealth of media, again, which most bluegrass musicians, including some of the greats, never attain.
It’s easy to envy them, but then again, it’s equally easy to wonder what might have been had they not had (at least what seems) such an effortless rise. Martin himself considers this idea from time to time, as in a recent issue of Fretboard Journal when he says, thinking of when he first started working with the Steeps, “I was a little bit worried. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll taint them a bit. They’re a traditional bluegrass band, and they’re teaming up with a comedian.’”
The fact is, he indeed may have tainted them a bit. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music. It suits hard luck, the life of the underdog not cruise ships and pop royalty. Would we wish that on someone? No, we wouldn’t, though just as Martin may have worried, the gravity of his association may have thrown them a bit off course creatively.
I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. Too much success may not be the best thing for a bluegrass band. On their last couple releases, and especially this one, Radio, they break from tradition (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. With Radio they’ve also added a sixth member to the band, Mike Ashworth on percussion. Also very present on this album is Jerry Douglas, who produced it, including having a large hand in editing and arranging the songs.
All that said, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. There is some lovely instrumental work, for sure, including the mandolin and banjo on “Looking Glass.” Mike Guggino, on mandolin, often takes a back seat to other members of the band that often command center stage, both literally and figuratively. Which is too bad. Another very strong entry in this collection is “Down that Road Again,” which features Graham Sharp on lead vocals. Woody Platt typically takes the lead role, though he lacks the kind of introspection that Sharp can clearly bring to a song. (True to the idea of being relegated to a back seat, Sharp’s name in the band’s Wikipedia entry links to the wrong Graham Sharp, a UK Olympic ice skater.)
That song, “Down that Road Again,” is an example of what the band can do best, though leads into a song, “Break,” that is the other side of the coin. Platt’s vocals are indelicate, over confident; Nicky Sanders’ fiddle breaks are indelicate, overconfident, and he’s reaching for things that he’s unable to deliver, something that he’s doing with an increasing frequency.
The Steeps make very nice music, and I wanted to love this release which, it has to be said, is the best work they’ve yet done. As I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is yet to come. Platt has said that, “We’re just getting started. It’s almost daunting, to think about how much more there is that we want to accomplish as the Steep Canyon Rangers.” The thing is, I wonder if the success they’ve had as a result of their work with Steve Martin hasn’t derailed things a bit. Yes, they get lots of ovations, though a bit of humility at this point—getting back to the basics and just telling good stories—might be what they need more than accolades. Are we happy for their success? Of course. But business and music are two different things. Are they making the best music that they can? For whatever reason, no, I don’t think they are. Not yet, but they remain a great band to watch.