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Review: Steep Canyon Rangers: Nobody Knows You

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Nobody Knows YouBy Joe Ross
I once predicted that The Steep Canyon Rangers, by the time their members were thirty, would be well-known far and wide for their brilliant performances and excellent recordings. Now, this tight unit from western North Carolina could be one of the most recognizable bands in bluegrass today. Besides having talent and youthful appeal, their familiarity was definitely boosted by being comedian, actor, and musician Steve Martin's backup band. They were Grammy nominated for their 2011 album collaboration with Martin called Rare Bird Alert. Following some excellent releases on Rebel Records, the band now debuts on Rounder.

The band's certainly been on a fast nearly vertical track since their 1999 formation and their first gigs at the Mellow Mushroom, a pizza parlor in Chapel Hill, N.C. Since going full-time in 2001, the young, hard-working, and prolific band has toured heavily. By 2006, they'd won IBMA's Emerging Artist of the Year Award, and 2011 brought them the Entertainer of the Year Award (with Steve Martin).

Now, Woody Platt (guitar), Mike Guggino (mandolin, mandola), Charles Humphrey III (bass), Graham Sharp (banjo, guitar), and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) are riding the wave, but not resting on laurels. Platt does most of the lead singing, and the others sing harmonies. I've always enjoyed this band's appealing delivery characterized by power, passion, emotion, and drive. Let's see how much higher this band (named for a stout Colorado beer) can climb with their 2012 release, Nobody Knows You.

With all the same splendid ingredients of previous releases, Nobody Knows You seems to take the soulful band to an even higher plane of contemporary bluegrass musical maturity. They probably have an increased budget for recording and production support (with 9-time Grammy winner Gary Paczosa), as well as the added experience for what it takes to capitalize on their personalized sound with originality, unique rhythms, dynamics, moods and syncopations.

For example, "Between Midnight and the Dawn" has a creative, conversational call-and-response arrangement. The high-stepping "As I Go" starts with a rousing a cappella quartet before raising hell. Besides the material, this set of music tells me they also still have the right attitude and gumption to succeed. If anything's changed over the years, it's mainly their continued development of an adventurous and sensational signature sound that allows them to "cross-market" the band to places where the music might not regularly be heard. The band also doesn't shy away from adding some less traditional bluegrass instruments into their mix ("Easy to Love" has Jimmy Wallace's piano; the closing "Long Shot" has John Gardner's drums).

Seven of the songs on this album are originals written by Sharp, "Knob Creek" is an evocative Guggino instrumental that the band really taps for its minor-keyed emotion, and Humphrey had a hand in writing three ("Natural Disaster," "Summer Winds," and "Rescue Me"). Charles' songwriting collaborators include Jonathan Byrd and Phillip Wofford Barker.

One soulful song, "Reputation," comes from the pen of Tim Hardin. "Open Country" is a standout track is with guests Jon Randall (guitar) and Randy Kohrs (Dobro). It's nice that lyrics are included in the CD jacket. Now that the Steep Canyon Rangers have achieved great success, I wonder if they'd consider a boost to the genre and support that got them there by creating a serious traditional roots or bluegrass gospel album. Regardless, I look forward to their future forays into progressive contemporary bluegrass.

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