Steep Canyon Rangers "Out in the Open"

Bluegrass non-traditionalists Steep Canyon Rangers recently released this, the group's 12th album, without part time "front man" Steve Martin but with producer Joe Henry helming an exquisitely conceived and executed set of modern originals (plus one Bob Dylan cover) that preserves the traditional bluegrass sound while moving the genre into the contemporary musical world.

In his annotation Henry notes that in the studio the musicians stood in a circle facing one another as they performed. Even had the producer not revealed the studio set-up you might have imagined it listening to this tightly woven, yet relaxed production that's almost self-consciously rich and warm-sounding.

The six man group began eighteen years ago as a college bar band at the University of North Carolina and soon began playing the Bluegrass festival circuit, with a few members coming and going over time. This latest effort explains the group's enduring popularity: strong songwriting with a thoughtful, introspective angle (most written by Graham Sharp), skillful fiddle (Nicky Sanders), mandolin (Michael Guggino) and banjo-anchored musicianship and the requisite seamless harmonizing.

Subject matter ranges from regret to escape to personal liberation to the passage of time and not being able to go back or unsee what's been seen. The cover of Dylan's powerful anti-war protest song "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" caps the album with "The Speed We're Traveling" acting as a reflective denouement.

The mix is coherent , the tonal balance warm almost to a fault and the overall sonic effect is "turn it up as loud as you dare" inviting.

Once you lock into Steep Canyon Rangers' Out in the Open you'll find yourself humming some of the melodies (for me it was the title tune and "Let Me Out of This Town") and then craving a play. Since it's more like a live performance than a "record production" it works well every play.

SunRa2000's picture

Check out the AAA "Never The Same Way Once" by Doc and Merle Watson. Recorded by Owsley "Bear" Stanley. One of the best records I've heard in a long time.