I’ve just submitted two new reviews to Aaron at the Lonesome Road Review, a nice little site with some very good writing. Susanville, the new one from the Dixie Bee-Liners and Deep in the Shade from the Steep Canyon Rangers are the two albums I consider.
Steep Canyon Rangers
Deep In The Shade
4.5 stars (out of 5)
While the bluegrass world is chock-a-block with exciting, young contemporary outfits, no other excites and impresses in the manner of the Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Rangers are on a roll. While they didn’t appear on Steve Martin’s popular and impressive The Crow last year, they gained considerable exposure appearing with the arrow-headed one at several high-profile gigs last fall: Hardly Strictly, Letterman, and Carnegie Hall. That explosive momentum is maintained by the dozen tracks comprising Deep In The Shade.
Having previously released four albums, each stronger and more distinctive than its predecessor, the Steep Canyon Rangers have the experience and chops to continue this unbroken string. Again working with producer Ronnie Bowman, the band hasn’t significantly altered their approach or sound. And while on some bands this may appear stagnant or limited, with the Rangers the impression is of consistency and capability.
Woody Platt’s voice is one of the group’s strongest features. It is south of high lonesome, inhabiting the mountainside between old-time and country, similar to Leigh Gibson (The Gibson Brothers). His voice is smooth and controlled, yet peppered with flavor that encourages one to return for additional helpings.
As always, the band is a cohesive unit, each part contributing to the high quality presentation. I’ve written previously of the interplay between Nicky Sanders’ fiddling and Graham Sharp’s banjo, and this impressive element remains apparent, especially on a track such as “I Thought That She Loved Me.” One day, and hopefully soon, the blistering mandolin talent of Mike Guggino will be recognized by those who vote on such things within the professional bluegrass community. Like all good bass players do, Charles Humphrey III keeps things between the lines while laying down a solid foundation on which the others build.
The songs, all but two band-written, are exceptional. Well-balanced between reflective lopers and the lively sounds most generally associated with bluegrass, there doesn’t appear to be an after-thought amongst the tracks. From the failed infidelity of the radio friendly “Have Mercy” to the Asheville-bound romp that is “Turn Up the Bottle,” the Rangers cover territory expected of quality bluegrass bands.
But they also gently push boundaries. Their four-part a capella treatment of the blues-standard “Sylvie” is spellbinding. The neo-folkiness of “The Mountain’s Gonna Sing” is like few other songs recently encountered:
Beneath the laurels, pearls of rain,
fall and shatter and sink into the clay.
Wash away these hills, wash away the dawn,
somehow there’s still the strength to carry on.
The spirit ever lingers in a song,
and the mountain’s gonna sing this song for me…
and rock me off to sleep.
As they did on 2007’s Lovin’ Pretty Women, the Steep Canyon Rangers again demonstrate that a band can be musically innovative while reaching into the past. Like other younger bands, Steep Canyon Rangers straddle the blurred edges of traditional and progressive bluegrass; that they do so as successfully as they do is a testament to their continued and expanding appeal.
Like I did while listening to Deep In the Shade over and over, I think you’ll find yourself exclaiming, “Damn, that’s good!”
The Dixie Bee-Liners
4 stars (out of 5)
Susanville is a grand recording, a concept album within a field where such is uncommon.
Its premise is one each of us has likely considered while staring through the windshield at the black ribbon: what are the stories of the faces we see sharing our road? The Dixie Bee-Liners—primarily Brandi Hart, Buddy Woodward, and Rachel Renee Johnson with a talented slate of supporters—delve into the idea that “every car on the highway has a story;” Susanville is their attempt to capture these in a loose narrative.
A dramatic bluegrass and Americana band, The Dixie Bee-Liners’ second album (an eight-song EP was the band’s introduction in 2006) is a departure from their previous Pinecastle album, 2008’s Ripe. The band has pulled back a bit from typical bluegrass trappings, successfully aiming toward an “acoustiblue” recipe that is more in keeping with that of Robinella or The Everybodyfields. This disc appears to be a continuation of select stories captured on Ripe; “Down on the Crooked Road” and “Lost in the Silence” would nicely complement these tales.
The band begins their two-thousand mile journey across the United States with a Steve Earle-inspired mando lick kicking off “Heavy.” This song allows Hart to introduce the first of her several voices; the youthful adventurer of this song is a very different character from the road-weary highway veteran following a “string of rubies trailed in the dust” in “Brake Lights.” Woodward takes a few lead vocals, most passionately on “Down” and when revealing the grim desperation of “Truck Stop Baby.”
Naturally, Susanville works best when as a continuous listen, when one can absorb the emotions and experiences that connect the various travelers. The dozen songs are bridged by instrumental snippets and GPS directions linking the loose narrative. Guest vocalist (and 1965 Academy of Country Music Top New Female Vocalist) Kay Adams gets the juiciest song, the lively “Trixie’s Diesel-Stop Café”; singing of her ‘Tiger Puddin’’, one discovers that Ms. Adams’ (best known for “Little Pink Mack”) might still make a trucker blush. Her voice remains distinctively sassy.
Nonetheless, most of the songs stand on their own. A lone extended instrumental entitled “Albion Road” holds the listener’s attention with intriguing flatpicking and mandolin. “Lead Foot” brings Simon & Garfunkel sweetness in the harmony while Sam Morrow’s banjo runs through. Other songs such as “(I Need) Eighteen Wheels,” “Find Out” and the title track could develop into radio favorites.
Susanville is a quality project, one whose very ambitions may out-strip its commerciality. Those who take the time to experience the disc will find lovely vocals, spirited and challenging instrumentation, and perhaps a perspective on those we pass within the bustle of our lives.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald