Photo: David Simchock / Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

Steep Canyon Rangers Go Symphonic on ‘Be Still Moses’

Celebrated bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers collaborate with their hometown Asheville Symphony on a new collection that will appeal to longtime fans, as well as those who only know of the band through a banjo player named Steve Martin.

Be Still Moses
Steep Canyon Rangers / Asheville Symphony
Yep Roc
6 March 2020

Be Still Moses, the new album by Steep Canyon Rangers and the Asheville Symphony, is a unique example of a band moving forward with a creative challenge, even as they look back on their collected body of work. As such, Be Still Moses is an inspired musical collaboration, but that’s not all. Be Still Moses is a matter of Asheville, North Carolina civic pride, with just a pinch of 1990s-era Philly soul to enliven the mix.

Steep Canyon Rangers have been an integral part of Asheville, North Carolina’s music scene since their formation in 2000. Along the way, the band have become a force in the national bluegrass scene, both with their albums and with their collaborative records with Steve Martin, who isn’t a half-bad banjo player himself. Be Still Moses brings the band together with the Asheville Symphony for a set of classic Steep Canyon Rangers’ songs, all originally released on albums from 2007’s Lovin’ Pretty Women through 2018’s Out in the Open.

Pairing up an act of any particular genre with a symphony or even just heavy orchestral elements isn’t exactly a new idea. Procol Harum, the Moody Blues, and Elton John all did it, and of course, Ray Charles turned the country music world upside down with his orchestrated Modern Sounds in Country and Western album. However, it isn’t always an idea that works. An orchestra can overwhelm the band/singer, leading to a saccharine mess of an album, or it could just be used as a superficial gloss to give the band of an aura of respectability, without adding any real musical substance.

Happily, Be Still Moses mostly gets the balance just right, with the opening song, “Easy to Love”, setting the tone. The orchestra plays a stately introduction to the song, leading to the band’s entrance at about the mark 1:30 mark. From this opening track forward, Steep Canyon Rangers sound quite comfortable playing within an orchestral context, whether on mid-tempo tracks like “Easy to Love” or more driving songs like “Radio” and “Blow Me Away”.

The Rangers’ reimagining of the album’s title track ties everything together, with a twist. A bluesy acoustic guitar leads to Woody Platt introducing the Old Testament story of baby Moses’ escape from the Pharaoh’s wrath. Platt is soon joined by the harmony vocalizing of Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, and Shawn Stockman. That might initially seem like a surprising collaboration, but it makes sense as it points out how gospel music traditions are part of the foundations of both bluegrass and rhythm and blues. Mostly though, it just sounds great.

In the end, all the pieces fit on Be Still Moses. The Asheville Symphony soars at times, and simply offers a beautiful backdrop for the expert playing and singing of Steep Canyon Rangers at other times. Hearing Boyz II Men in an unexpected setting is a treat. Longtime Steep Canyon Rangers fans will appreciate the chance to hear a new take on a set of the band’s classics, and listeners who might only be familiar with the Steve Martin collaborations will get a chance to dive deeper into the songbook.

RATING 7 / 10