It’s rare that a band can take a three-year break from playing their own music, but, in the meantime, gain popularity and earn awards and acclaim from their peers, critics, and fans. But anything is possible when you add Steve Martin to the equation (for you math majors, Steve Martin + X = Better). Since their last solo release, 2009’s Deep in the Shade, the Steep Canyon Rangers have been busy touring and recording with the comedy legend turned banjo superstar. With Martin, they toured to serve as his backing band supporting his first album The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, and then recorded an album together, 2011’s Rare Bird Alert.
Previously, the Steep Canyon Rangers have been steeped in traditional bluegrass – their four solo albums up until this point (all released on Rebel Records), were heavily based on mandolin and guitar runs, a steady bass line, and violin solos. Though it wasn’t always hard to distinguish them from other traditional bluegrass acts, it may not have been necessary. Their original songs and style leant their own sense of originality to the genre, but did not often veer from the tradition. Of course, that’s how most bluegrass is, and that’s how bluegrass players like it – traditional. But the Rangers’ newest album, their first on Rounder Records, Nobody Knows You does veer off from tradition just a bit. The usual instruments, talent, and method are still there, but they’ve thrown in some pop and folk influences as well.
The title track (and first song on the record) is a certain departure from their normal style. It’s not so much hoedown as it is sing-along, with a break for the soloists in the group to show off their chops – the switch off between Nicky Sander’s fiddle and Mike Guggino’s mandolin is seamless. The next track, “Rescue Me”, jumps back into traditionalism but this time with a bit more maturity than we may be used to from the Rangers. Over fast-picked banjo and guitar, and a slap base, Woody Platt chimes in with the thoughtful words, “You can try to hide the past but it will run you dry, where truth and lies hurt just the same, and every broken heart fuels a raging fire, been burnin’ bridges down but the ashes remain.” The tune is a dark bluegrass dirge, with the chorus lines “rescue me” and melodic, in time, plucks of guitar and banjo holding in your head throughout. A couple tracks later, “Between Midnight and the Dawn” harkens to some gospel and blues influences – a hard, slow picked banjo turn utilizes a blues scale, and there are a couple sections of harmonized vocals, but a couple of runs on the mandolin bring it back to bluegrass.
Of course, there are some of those good ol’ bluegrass tunes that the Rangers’ couldn’t help but belt out. “As I Go” and “Reputation” have some of the crispest vocal harmonies recorded to disc this side of the new millennium, not to mention some solid rhythmic groove and great solos by the melody section. “Ungrateful One” is a classic upbeat jig, set to lyrics of pain and hardship – a too-tough father, and a son yearning for his approval. It will be an ironic site to see the shuffling feet and smiling faces as the Rangers play this one live.
Nobody Knows You is not exactly what the old fans of the Steep Canyon Rangers are looking for, and it certainly is not what they’re expecting. The band, having played to a more mainstream audience these last three years, have taken their other influences into account to expand upon their traditionalism – and unfortunately this is not always what the “true” fans want. However, those fans need not fret. Steep Canyon Rangers have still stayed true to their origins. They still prove their chops on most every song, and their vocal harmonies are still spot on. In fact, by reeling in these influences they have proved their songwriting ability evermore, a talent to combine genres and styles while not straying too far off course. Whether it was the influence of Steve Martin’s style, or the chance to escape from it, with Nobody Knows You, the Steep Canyon Rangers have given their listeners yet another reason to keep listening.