By Roger Sharman
Currently sitting on top of the Bluegrass Billboard charts, Steep Canyon Rangers latest release, ‘North Carolina Songbook’, was recorded live at Merlefest, North Carolina’s preeminent roots festival hosted in Wilkesboro, earlier in 2019. Indeed the guys have become a near permanent fixture at the festival.
For those not familiar with the band, they formed back in 2000, steadily building a following locally, and on the Bluegrass scene. In 2009 they became more widely known as a result of collaborating with Comedian, actor and banjo player, Steve Martin.
In total Steep Canyon Rangers have released nine studio albums and two collaborative albums with Martin, and in 2013 Both Martin and SCR began playing with Edie Brickell after Martin and Brickell recorded the ‘Love Has Come For You’ album.
2019’s Merlefest appearance was a completely different experience for the band, they decided to go on a musical journey, playing their way through eight songs that have been central to the musical history of the region. The music of North Carolinian icons such as Ben E King, James Taylor and Doc Watson, amongst others, received a Steep Canyon Rangers makeover.
I never for one minute believed that I would hear a Bluegrass version of Ben E King’s classic ‘Stand By Me’ and it works. Truthfully its quite similar to the original, ok Woody Platt doesn’t quite have the vocal strength of Ben, but he doesn’t need to, the focus here is on the instrumentation and appreciating highly skilled craftsmen demonstrating their mastery of their instruments.
Earl Scruggs ‘Don’t let Your Deal go Down’ is a full on Bluegrass Hoedown, Its vibrant and energetic, just the way Bluegrass performed well should be, and these guys really are extremely good at what they do.
Next up sees the guys take on a real challenge, adapting Thelonious Monk’s ‘Blue Monk’ to a style more fitting for the occasion. Monk’s Grand Piano and the Saxophone that dominated the original have gone and been replaced by banjo, fiddle and mandolin, and their rendition is absolutely spectacular, making it one of my favourites on the record.
The legendary fiddler and banjo player, Tommy Jarrell’s ‘Drunken Hiccups’ is next to receive a revamp, well not so much a revamp, more of a modern sound and a slight change in name to ‘Drunkard’s Hiccups’. This is the first real glimpse of the harmonies that these guys add to their music.
Another legend from the area, Chapel Hill’s Elizabeth Cotten is paid homage next. As a left handed (wannabe) guitarist, I feel it pertinent to add that Elizabeth taught herself the banjo and then the guitar, playing the instruments upside down, being a southpaw, and owning right-handed instruments. Her style was pretty unique in that transferring her songs from banjo to guitar she first played with all down strokes, like a banjo would be played, which then evolved to picking, indeed her signature alternating bass style picking is now known as “Cotton picking”. Her song ‘Shake Sugaree’ is revamped, and given the full band treatment, and what a magnificent job the and do on this classic track.
James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ is showcased next, the instant stand out features of this song is the fiddle and the harmonisation proving that the guys not only excel at Bluegrass but also traditional folk songs.
The wonderful, ‘I’ve Endured’ (Ola Belle Reed) is heavenly in interpretation, once again demonstrating this band is as tight as a pair of Russell Brand’s jeans on Boxing day, and eminently more appealing, to me anyway. This is an absolute gem.
Last, but most definitely not least is Doc Watson’s ‘Your Lone Journey’. Watson is perhaps the most famous Musician to come out of North Carolina. Doc actually founded Merlefest back in 1988 and was its host up until his death in 2012, in honour of his son, Merle who tragically died in a farm accident in 1985, so it’s only fitting that they included a Doc song.
I feel like SCR have perfectly captured the mood of the festival, almost transporting you to it if you close your eyes. They clearly gave a lot of thought to the set and certainly did justice to all the songs included on the record. The arrangements and instrumentation are on point and I believe that if the songwriters were still alive today, they would be nodding in approval at the renditions.
Currently in Australia touring, Steep Canyon Rangers kick off a tour of the United States, Ireland and the UK, finishing off back in the US on the 7th January. The UK and Ireland dates see Steve Martin and Martin Short join the band, playing huge venues such as Belfast’s SSE Arena, the 3 Arena in Dublin and the Royal Albert Hall in London, all in March, so if you don’t fancy C2C then this would be a worthwhile alternative.