The Steep Canyon Rangers threaten to break some bluegrass rules with their eighth LP, Tell the Ones I Love. Following a succession of increasingly sparkling productions, the new album is the group’s most freewheeling affair yet — it may also be itsbest. The performances were captured live as the Rangers played together in a circle, leveraging the booming acoustics of a studio built by The Band’s Levon Helm. The Rangers (who play Friday and Saturday, Jan. 10 and 11 at The Orange Peel) made use of renowned rock producer Larry Campbell and included drums on several tracks — an outright taboo in the minds of many genre purists.
“The perception of what is and what isn’t bluegrass is very confusing,” says singer and guitarist Woody Platt. “It’s a bluegrass record. It’s got banjo and mandolin and bass, fiddle and guitar, a little bit of drums, some harmony singing and some songs. It’s just not in that same absolutely traditional formula on each song. But I really don’t think we decided that we wanted to get away from one thing or another. We feel comfortable enough as a band, and we’re lucky enough to have fans who will just allow us to do what we do and still be our fans. And that’s a good feeling, to feel like we’re not having to make a record to fit a mold.”
To that end, the Rangers started touring with a drummer, enlisting the services of good friend Mike Ashworth. In the North Carolina mountains, they find themselves surrounded by an increasingly varied music community, flush with jam bands and indie rockers, electronic gurus and avant-garde explorers. Tell the Ones I Love nods to this diversity by using drummer Jeff Sipe, a hallmark of the area’s jam scene. In their view, the only way for the music to thrive is for it to continue to evolve, maintaining its time-honored convention while making room for more progressive strains. The band’s own adventurous blend wouldn’t be the same if its members lived anywhere else, says mandolinist Mike Guggino.
“Connections like that certainly influence us and open us up to other gigs and other sounds,” he says. “I don’t see how, in this day and age, you can help but absorb this information around you, all this music and media. There are so many festivals now, and clubs and venues. We’re lucky to be where we are, surrounded by so much music and so many good musicians and great bands of all kinds, not just bluegrass.”
That the Rangers stand apart from rigorous traditionalists makes sense. Since 2010, they’ve toured and recorded with Steve Martin, serving as the backing band for the comedian and banjo ambassador. Their collaborative album, Rare Bird Alert, released in 2011, earned a Grammy nomination and the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Entertainer of the Year” accolade.
Striking while the iron was still hot, the Rangers forged their own LP, Nobody Knows You, for 2012. That album won the Grammy for “Best Bluegrass Album,” the same award that Rare Bird Alert couldn’t haul in. With or without Martin, Platt and his pals now comprise one of the genre’s hottest groups, popular enough to serve as a gateway for uninitiated listeners.
They’re not alone. In recent years, North Carolina has nurtured some of the style’s most innovative talents. Raleigh’s Chatham County Line, friends of the Rangers who started about the same time, pepper their driving instrumentals with sharp hooks and moments of rock ’n’ roll abandon.
With other bands like Asheville’s Town Mountain and Chapel Hill’s Big Fat Gap pushing their own permutations, the state has become a breeding ground for forward-thinking bluegrass. In September, the Rangers hosted the first edition of the IBMA’s annual awards show, an affirmation of the area’s growing reputation.
“It was so exciting to be at IBMA this year in Raleigh and just see that happen,” Guggino says. “It was a home run. The energy that surrounded the event was amazing. We couldn’t be more proud to call North Carolina home, being bluegrass musicians.
“This is the center of the universe,” he adds.
It’s taken time for the Rangers to feel comfortable testing the genre’s rigid boundaries. They started playing together nearly 15 years ago while enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill. They listened religiously to beloved standards and honed their craft by creating renditions, but they’ve always been more energized about writing their own material. Since the very start, their records have included more originals than covers, allowing songwriters Graham Sharp and Charles Humphrey III the chance to refine their technique, a strength that’s never been more apparent than on Tell the Ones I Love.
The title track comes on like just another train song, an obligatory retelling of the wreck of the infamous Old 97. But the Rangers’ concerns are more spiritual than historical, positioning this doomed train as a triumphant chariot bound for glory. “Everything was made to break/ And the wheels are made of glass,” Platt sings with overwhelming warmth. “I can hear ’em groan and feel ’em shakin’/ Neath the weight of all our past.” Like Johnny Cash heading for Folsom, the drums chug powerfully, allowing fiddle, mandolin and banjo to tangle with carefree precision. It’s like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” if that lost soul had boarded a train car instead of wandering the countryside, a simple narrative built on complex themes that go well beyond pickin’ and grinnin’.
“I think it’s always good to be a little different,” Platt says. “If you keep putting out the same record, people are going to get tired of it. But if you can expect a little change — not a different band, just a different sound that’s still familiar but shows growth or change — I think it’s exciting for the people who like the music.”
— Jordan Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Steep Canyon Rangers with Sam Bush
where: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
when: Friday, Jan. 10, at 9 p.m. $20 advance / $22 day of show
The Saturday, Jan. 11 show was sold out at press time