What makes a good bluegrass record? Essentially the creation of one man -- the Charlie Parker of country, Mr. Bill Monroe -- bluegrass is still planted pretty firmly in the soil that Bill tilled, despite many decades of innovation and refinement. Like the blues, bluegrass is governed by certain rules that are breached only with great caution. However, coupled with this conservative spirit is the bluegrass emphasis on spontaneity and originality. This tension -- between loyalty to the past and the impulse of the moment -- is one of the things that keeps bluegrass music so joyously and indisputably alive and kicking.
Modern bluegrass acts generally fall into one of three categories:
Progressive bluegrass: favored by the jam-band set, who've made some surprising inroads into this rural, Southern, decidedly non-alfalfa-eating art form. "Newgrass", as some wiseguy decided to call it, is generally characterized by unorthodox chord progressions, longer instrumental breaks, and lyrics that may have nothing to do with the farm, that damned old moonshine, or the folks back at home.
Alterative bluegrass: exemplified by bands like the Bad Livers (at least in the past) and Split Lip Rayfield who bring a rock 'n' roll attitude and energy to the music, mixing a healthy irreverence with an obvious love for the sources.
Traditional bluegrass: still by far the most common kind, traditional bluegrass acts favor mastery of the form over radical innovation. "Why change a good recipe?" seems to be the philosophy here, and there's much to be said for it, as you can see for yourself at any number of the hundreds of bluegrass festivals where countless bluegrass combos play the old-time music in an old-time way.
Somewhere in this mix we find the Steep Canyon Rangers, a quartet from Chapel Hill who, in the last couple of years, have won their way into the tight-knit bluegrass community through a mixture of sharp songwriting, instrumental chops, and a sound that's deeply traditional without being mired in the past. This is bluegrass music as you might have heard it in 1949, but it's performed with such ease and feeling that the truly timeless quality of the music shines through.
Their new, self-titled record starts with a bad pun (the heartbroken narrator stares at the window all day, hurtin' and "living in the pane"), but the playing -- frenzied banjo rolls, fiddle licks slashing through the air, the insistent rhythm of the mandolin -- grabs you immediately, in true bluegrass fashion, and doesn't let go. The singing is just as strong, with lead vocalist Woody Platt opting out of the usual Bill Monroe imitation, and his rich voice is a pleasure throughout. The harmonies, of course, are unerring.
There are songs by every member of the group, though banjo player Graham Sharp wrote nine of the thirteen, many of them exceptional, such as "Goodbye Bottle of Whiskey", a bluesy, mountain-haunted lament, and "Kicked Out of Town", an infectious folk ballad of love, murder, and other delightful mainstays of Americana. There's only one cover, a Jimmy Martin waltz tune called "I'll Drink No More Wine", though without the liner notes it would be almost impossible to know that the rest of the songs are new and original, so well do they fit into the grand old bluegrass tradition.
Still, the band isn't afraid to take some small, fun chances, as on "Feelin' Just a Little Like Dale", which features drums, long forbidden in the bluegrass world, and lyrics that pay tribute to the great NASCAR hero.
Innovation and envelope-pushing is important, in bluegrass as in any art-form, but, as the Steep Canyon Rangers demonstrate so ably, there's also a lot to be said for a healthy traditionalism. Or, as the kids would say, "Keepin' it real."