[1 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s an overriding sense of familiarity on the latest album from the Steep Canyon Rangers. For me, it’s a personal one: the “Ottawa River” is mentioned on the song “Camellia”, and I practically live on that river (and I’m pretty sure that the band is referencing my neck of the woods, since it also comes after a reference to the “Pontiac”, which would seemingly namecheck the Quebec side of the waterway). Maybe the reference to my burg (thanks, guys!; it’s a rarity to mention Ottawa in popular song) comes after performing with Steve Martin at my home city’s Bluesfest in 2012. And, yes, that might be the other way that you’re familiar with this band; Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin are kind of fused at the hip. You may also know that the group won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for their last effort, Nobody Knows You, which may also be how many people have heard of the band.
But there are other ways the familiar rears its head, and, for some listeners, it might be in this new album’s sound. Tell the Ones I Love is steeped in bluegrass traditions, sure—one listen to the rather Gaelic-sounding “Graveyard Fields” instrumental is proof that this outfit has the chops to be nimble and quick on their instruments—but there are nods to more popular and cosmopolitan strains of country music. It’s clear that Steep Canyon Rangers are making concessions to the mainstream this time out, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you can overlook the fact that vocalist Woody Platt might be more comfortable fronting a Tim McGraw cover band.
Tell the Ones I Love is interesting because, for all of its nods to mainstream country, it is a record about death and mortality, and it was made in the shadow of the reaper. Steep Canyon Rangers recorded the album in the home studio of the Band’s late Levon Helm, who succumbed to cancer last year. And, lyrically, there is a fascination with the afterlife right from the first song, the title track, which portends rather metaphorically, “Last train, before they shut it down / It’s the last line going that way / Last chance headin’ out of town / I thought I heard the driver say.” But there’s a hint of optimism to be found here, too: “So tell the ones I love this trains runnin’ late / And there ain’t no end of the line / The hardest part of heaven is makin’ it wait / But the old 97’s gonna make it this time.” It’s fitting that a train song would be about almost crossing the river Styx, so to speak, and, as an image, it is fascinating and works quite well to set the scene for what follows. Yes, that means that more death is in the cards throughout the thematic of the LP. Final song “Las Vegas” offers, “Mama I’m two steps over the line / King of this plastic castle and I feel like dying.” Elsewhere, “Hunger” has the singer “searchin’ / For a spirit in the sky.” Tell the Ones I Love, indeed. If there’s time. If there’s even time.
But Tell the Ones I Love is a more lopsided affair when you consider how it sounds. While the band purportedly used very few overdubs this time out, this is still about as varnished as good ol’ fashioned hillbilly music can come. Sometimes the results are astounding, as on the aforementioned “Graveyard Fields”, but elsewhere they can be slightly cloying—“Las Vegas”, for all its sleaziness and swagger, doesn’t really fit as an album ender. “Take the Wheel”, the song that precedes it, feels like the natural end of things, which suggests that Steep Canyon Rangers could have used a good editor in the studio, or at least a sequencer. Still, that quibble aside, Tell the Ones I Love isn’t too shabby of a countrified record, and shows the group trying to go beyond their roots—drums are even employed on a few tracks, such as the Steve Earle-esque stomp of “Stand and Deliver”, which is a little unorthodox by bluegrass standards. And even if “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken” sounds awkward as a song title, there’s a sense of four-hanky weepiness that will get the less stoic crying in their beer at the bar.
Overall, Tell the Ones I Love is an interesting and well-rounded examination of life at the end of the line, and there’s a great deal of thematic juiciness to chew on here. This alone elevates the LP above many of its peers of its pedigree. And the songs themselves roll by as either not too shabby or flipping great, in alternate measure. Despite the deep dark hole the record burrows into lyrically, there are some real toe-tapping gems on the disc. While it may be hard to predict that this is worthy of a follow-up Grammy repeat, and I’m doubtful owing to the darker subject matter, for starters, if not the rather lopsided quality of the songs and how they’re sequenced, it is still very commanding and worthy of attention. While there’s not much here that would suggest an affinity with a comedian such as Martin, Steep Canyon Rangers have offered up something that is meaningful and engaging. And, yes, it sure doesn’t hurt that the group loves my hometown, some thousands of miles removed from their North Carolina habitat. That’s something worth singing in harmony about, and there’s very nary a discordant note on Tell the Ones I Love for all of its black hues and talk about train wrecks, the latter of which this album deftly steers away from being.