Steep Canyon Rangers “Morning Shift”

Yep Roc, 2023

Storytelling to the finest bluegrass.

‘Morning Shift’  further blazes the Steep Canyon Rangers trail of North Carolina bluegrass and storytelling.  Anticipation of this 14th studio album was always going to be high following the departure of founding member and frontman Woody Platt. A founder member 23 years ago, Platt had been such a focal point of the band’s music and live show. But over that time from their collaborations with Steve Martin to their deserved three Grammy nominations and induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame Steep Canyon Rangers have always been a tight team whose sum is greater than its accumulated parts. Platt left on very amicable terms and new recruit, the hugely talented singer/songwriter Aaron Burdett brings his vast folk tradition to the Rangers’ vast hinterland of Appalachian and Piedmont bluegrass. He could have been in the band for years so natural does his contribution feel.

In Darrell Scott, an inspired producer who also joins in on the many harmonies and engineer Dave Sinko, the Rangers chose well. Banjo player Graham Sharp gives ‘Morning Shift’ context, “We’re a product of who the band was in the past as well as who we want to be in the present and future”. That continuity flows throughout like the sparkling waters of those Appalachian mountains.

The Rangers tell stories. Sharp, who with Burdett and bassist Barrett Smith, wrote opener ‘Hominy Valley’ about his Asheville neighbourhood that is said to be cursed by the ghost of a Cherokee scout killed by the revolutionary army. Tense interplay between banjo, fiddle and mandolin add urgency to Smith’s vocals as he moves from the brave buried, “sitting beneath an oak tree/ Sitting up so he could keep his watch over Hominy Valley/ I think he’s watching me” to the present day as he sees the trees being felled to make way for property development, “I think he’s watching me still”. Will the curse return? Sharp’s ghosts do on ‘Ghost of Glasgow’ where he ponders his brothers’ fate in local icy waters some years back had a vigilant local not come to the rescue. Returning to the city since, Sharp wrote this poignant muse. His vocals to a distinctly Celtic fiddle shudder with ‘what if’ before harmonies release the relief of, “Share one more drink with the ghost of Glasgow”.

Burdett’s writing is full of old-time influences. Singing with the Rangers allows him to revisit and reinterpret traditional influences from his western North Carolina home. ‘Above My Burdens’ is a perfect example, as he sings lead around Mike Guggino’s mandolin and Mike Ashworth’s guitar. With Sharp they all harmonise just as where the sound originated. In the aptly titled ‘Deep End’ Burdett writes and sings about his first time with the Rangers. He was only at the audition stage when they invited him to join them and Steve Martin in front of 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl. The pace is furious reflecting his approach, “I’ve been charging ahead since I was a child”, the title making clear, “I’m the guy who jumps in the deep end”.

Despite the wealth of originality among the band Scott insisted on a cover. If not received enthusiastically at first his suggestion of ‘Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals’ by Robbie Fulks went down well. A folk-sounding melody with wistful strings pull at emotions of nostalgia, anger and optimism. As well as a cover Scott also urged an instrumental. He may not have bargained on three,  ‘Old Stone House/Handlebars/Chimney Rock’. Guggino’s stately old-time waltz ‘Old Stone House’ had been a feature of the live show for years so there was the base and intro to ‘Handlebars’, something Sharp had been noodling for years before his ‘Chimney Rock’ sends this Irish-sounding medley into the stratosphere. The album closes with the touching ‘Recommend Me’ about the relationship between father and daughter as the band’s strings swirl around Sharp’s baritone.

A line-up change usually brings an element of uncertainty, particularly to a band as close as Steep Canyon Rangers. Fans need have no fears. Platt’s were big shoes to fill but Aaron Burdett has feet of a similar size. He deepens the Rangers traditional feel while together they continue to make some of the finest contemporary bluegrass around.

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About Lyndon Bolton 143 Articles
Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between
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