Tangled Up In Blue Grass: Finger-picking phenoms make sure everybody remembers them For anyone who thinks bluegrass is nothing more than a bunch of hillbillies making a terrible racket on washtubs and whiskey jugs, Steep Canyon Rangers are here to knock some cotton-pickin’ sense into ya. The five-man band—six, when actor Steve Martin sits in on banjo—has been reinventing bluegrass for the last decade. In the past year alone, SCR’s success has reached towering heights with two impressive honors: The International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Entertainers of the Year” award and an enthusiastic wag of First Dog Bo’s tail at the White House Fourth of July gala.
The Steep Canyon Rangers have come a long way since their days as a favorite campus band at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They've been Steve Martin's backup band since 2009, which introduced them to a national, and non-bluegrass, audience and earned them a Grammy nomination for their collaboration with Martin on his Rare Bird Alert album, to which they also contributed three songs. On their Rounder debut, the band continue to challenge their fans with 11 new tunes that show off their growing playing and songwriting skills.
It’s rare that a band can take a three-year break from playing their own music, but, in the meantime, gain popularity and earn awards and acclaim from their peers, critics, and fans. But anything is possible when you add Steve Martin to the equation (for you math majors, Steve Martin + X = Better). Since their last solo release, 2009’s Deep in the Shade, the Steep Canyon Rangers have been busy touring and recording with the comedy legend turned banjo superstar.
Like Alison Krauss and Punch Brothers, North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers, most recently seen backing comic/banjo player Steve Martin, stretches bluegrass in a pop direction in a way that seems natural, apropos. Unfortunately, while the quintet's musicianship and harmonies are impeccable, its downfall remains subject matter, relying too heavily on heart songs in a manner lacking originality. As they sing: "Love is a natural disaster." Their humorous side shows in the title track as well as on the rampaging "As I Go," while lone instrumental "Knob Creek" brightly exhibits their prowess individually and as an ensemble.