New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Graham Sharp

Smart, Diverse, Lyrical Acoustic Americana From the Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers first exploded onto the Americana scene in the zeros as a pretty straight-up bluegrass band, but in the years since then they’ve become a lot more diverse. They’re just as informed by oldschool honkytonk as they are by hi-de-ho swing and punkgrass jamband music. Their latest album Arm in Arm is streaming at Bandcamp.

The third track, Sunny Days is a classic example of why these guys have such a big following. It’s a big singalong anthem, a showcase for banjo player Graham Sharp’s sizzling lines over guitarist Woody Platt’s punchy chords, fiddler Nicky Sanders sailing over bassist Barrett Smith’s steady pulse. When they take it down for a suspenseful break and then build up again, it’s Mike Guggino’s mandolin that’s out front. Old Crow Medicine Show made a living with songs like these for years, and so have the Steep Canyon Rangers. Crowds love this kind of stuff – and it’s a crime that in most parts of the United States, crowds aren’t allowed to come out to see it these days.

Everything You Know is another killer cut, a slow, hauntingly lyrical parable of imperialist evil and how to hang under the radar away from it. It could be the Jayhawks. In the year of the lockdown, this one really packs a wallop.

The rest of the record runs the gamut. Skipping right to the last track, Crystal Ship, to see if it was a crazy cover of the Doors song, turned out to be a false alarm: it’s an original, a subdued, slow, spare, melancholy ballad. Opening the album, One Drop of Rain follows a pretty standard newgrass pattern: enigmatic verse, catchy anthemic chorus.

Platt breaks out his electric slide guitar for Every River over drummer Michael Ashworth’s low-key drive, with some searing interplay with the fiddle. Honey on My Tongue has more of a low-key front-porch folk vibe, while In the Next Life diverges into wry, midtempo, syncopated Americana rock.

Bullet in the Fire is a pensive, stoically philosophical mandolin-driven ballad, followed by Take My Mind, a brisk shuffle featuring Oliver Wood and Michael Bearden. There’s also a sly, fiddle-fueled pickup number, A Body Like Yours and the Grateful Dead-influenced Afterglow.

The Steep Canyon Rangers Bring Their Cutting-Edge Americana and Newgrass to Bowery Ballroom

A few years ago, the Steep Canyon Rangers were best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. On one hand, that gig catapulted them beyond the bluegrass highway into what remains of a mainstream in this country. On the other, they’re a fantastic band in their own right. Their previous album Tell the Ones I Love was a rich survey of Americana, from oldtimey front-porch folk to the Grateful Dead, channeled through the prism of bluegrass, ending with a fantastically creepy hi-de-ho swing tune. Their new one, Radio – streaming at Spotify – picks up where that one left off, but with an even more aphoristic lyrical vividness that draws deeply on classic 50s C&W. The group – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – are on yet another US tour, with a stop at Bowery Ballroom at 9 PM on October 12; general admission is $20.

The opening title track, a minor-key newgrass pop hit, is a bittersweet look back at life before Spotify: “Kasey Kasem told me I’d find her one day, and I believed…a skeleton key made just for you, and the open door we stumbled through and we crawled and we ran and we just flew.” After that, the swaying, bluesy midtempo Diamonds in the Dust looks back to Woody Guthrie and before: “These dreams are bust, chasin’ the silver in the starlight, the diamonds in the dust.”

Simple Is Me has an easygoing 70s Americana pop feel spiced by Sharp’s terse banjo lines, a sound echoed later on in Long Summer. By contrast, Blow Me Away has a blustering high-plains drive: anybody who’s ever raced to get home (or get down into the basement) after the twister warning comes over the radio or the fire station siren will relate to this. Again, Sharp takes centerstage before Sanders and Guggino follow with lickety-split solos. Blue Velvet Rain (what a great title, huh?) keeps the stormy imagery going, this time over a morose, morbid country waltz with biting solos from those two again: “Soaked to the bone and burning alone, a fire without any flame.” Then they pick up the pace with the brisk instrumental Looking Glass.

The gorgoeusly allusive Down That Road Again could be about crime, or addiction, or plain old heartbreak…or maybe all of those things. Break – a duet between Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth – gets supersonic playing from Sharp and Guggino and a jagged, fabric-tearing solo from Sanders. The band brings it down again with a brutally picturesque George Jones homage: “The stronger stuff doesn’t help anymore, it’s barely enough to hold up the floor when the ceiling’s too low and it’s promising rain.”

When the Well Runs Dry grimly weighs the need to make a living against the potentially devastating consequences of fracking. The album winds up with Monumental Fool, an offhandedly apt look at how history forgets money-grubbers. Yet another brilliant mix of Americana songcraft and playing: no wonder these guys routinely take home IBMAs every year.

The Steep Canyon Rangers: Just About the Best Thing Happening in Americana Right Now

The Steep Canyon Rangers – bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and drummer Michael Ashworth – might be best known as Steve Martin’s bluegrass backing band. But they also write great songs. They’re on tour for their latest album, Tell the Ones I Love, at City Winery on Nov 4 at 8 PM; $20 standing room tix are your best deal. Newgrass nd original acoustic Americana doesn’t get any better than this.

The title track opens the album and sets the stage for most of the rest of it; the way they work an oldtime vernacular, respectful of tradition but not constrained by it, is the key to what this band does. This one is a brisk banjo-driven tune with a doomed, death-obsessed lyric, sort of an update on the classic folk song The Old 97. Stand & Deliver builds a surreal, apocalyptic scenario over a soaring, anthemic tune lit up by bluesy mandolin and a shivery fiddle solo. Bluer Words Were Never Spoken has a literate acoustic alt-country feel in something of a Joe Maynard vein, a sad story-within-a-story. They follow that with the amusingly cynical Come Dance.

Camellia recalls the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty; then the band pulls out their lone instrumental here, the Celtic-tinged Graveyard Fields. Boomtown has the feel of a James McMurtry western ballad, a pensive go-where-the-work-is tale. The band wryly explores a different and more dangerous kind of work in the weed-smuggling anthem Mendocino County Line, then go into darkly guitar-fueled oldtimey swing with Hunger. Lay Myself Down has some killer vocal harmonies and a neat succession of handoffs, from fiddle to banjo to mando; it wouldn’t be out of place in the Dixie Bee-Liners catalog. Take the Wheel goes back toward a rustic oldtime folk feel; the album ends with its best song, the twistedly carnivalesque hi-de-ho noir Las Vegas. “I’m king of this plastic castle but I feel like dying,” says the guy watching the “tight shirts, t-shirts and quick casanovas, honeymooners, middleschoolers, sightseeing high rollers” slowly making their way down the strip. “If you ain’t hustling, you can bet you’re getting hustled.” It’s a good indication of how diverse this band can be when they feel like it. And as anybody who’s ever seen Martin with these guys will tell you, they’re just as good live as they are on this album.