The Steep Canyon Rangers head down that road again on “Radio” – an album review

Few bands mean as much to me, emotionally and personally, as the Steep Canyon Rangers, so I was excited when the band released their ninth studio album two weeks ago. “Radio” was produced by legendary dobro player and fellow-GRAMMY winner Jerry Douglas, who also plays on the album.

You need to buy this album, if for just this one reason: Graham Sharp’s “Down That Road Again” is one of the best new songs I have heard in a long time. In fact, if you don’t count Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it might be THE best new song I’ve heard in years.

The Steep Canyon RangersThe song, with Graham on lead vocals, feels like someone who is finally standing on firm ground but hasn’t forgotten the pain of the past and uses it to warn himself against an imminent fall. The climax of the chorus particularly resonates with me – “Right now I need the kind of friend / Who won’t let me go down that road again.” I have a few friends like that, and there’s almost nothing in this life that I am more grateful for than them. (Waves at Diana and everyone else.) I also like the line “There is a man who looks just like me… If you see him ’round won’t you stop and say It’s not too late.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Isbell tunes, “Live Oak.” We all have those hollow, moments when we feel driftless and unmoored from ourselves.

Empsall and Sharp

The author and Graham Sharp

The music on “Down That Road Again” is every bit as important as the lyrics. It opens with a slow, moving intro from Douglas on steel guitar and best-in-the-business Nicky Sanders on violin (and it really is more violin than fiddle here). But what really gets you is the tight harmonies on the chorus – the slide on “Right now” takes my breath away every time. Douglas certainly deserves producer props for that, as do engineers Julian Dreyer and Clay Miller at Echo Mountain Recording. While the Steeps’ albums have always been great, like most bluegrass bands, the harmonies just don’t come across nearly as well recorded as they do live. “Radio” starts to fix that, and not just on “Down That Road Again” – though this song in particular is one of those moments that really reminds us why music exists. I’m not afraid to say it: This song makes me cry. Thank you, Graham.

Radio is certainly a good album worth a spot in your rotation. That said, aside from “Down That Road Again” and another Sharp tune, “Wasted,” I think I actually prefer both 2012’s amazing GRAMMY-winner “Nobody Knows You” and 2013’s “Tell the Ones I Love.” But don’t get me wrong! This is a good album, and I’ve listened to it half a dozen times already. Other highlights include “Blow Me Away” (embedded below), “Long Summer,” and, if you’re looking for feel-good nostalgia, the title track.

As with the other two Rounder albums, there’s one upbeat instrumental track written by mandolin player Mike Guggino (“Looking Glass”) and 11 solid bluegrass songs – seven by Graham Sharp, three by bass player Charles Humphrey (including two with frequent songwriting partner Phil Barker of Town Mountain), and one from lead singer Woody Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth. While Woody’s distinctive smooth voice remains lead on seven songs, Graham takes lead on four (in addition to prominent harmonies), which is more than the last two. Since Graham’s voice is deeper with a bit more edge to it than Woody’s, this makes the album’s sound slightly rougher than fans might be used to.

Woody Platt and the author

Woody Platt and the author

But on the uptempo side, the Platt/Whitworth song – “Break” – was a nice surprise, as Woody didn’t write anything on the last two albums, and it features Whitworth alongside him on vocals. That said, it’s always a little chilling, and intimate in an uncomfortable way, to hear a married couple sing about breakups (I’m looking at you, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis!). But, I suppose that speaks to the strength of the couple, doesn’t it?

There’s one other new thing about “Radio.” Percussionist Mike Ashworth has been touring with the Steeps for a couple of years, but this is the first time he’s recorded with them. While I’m often a purist, I’m perfectly okay with the drums here. The Steeps may have a more traditional sound than some of the other young bluegrass bands out there right now, but Ashworth’s drums, like Woody and Graham’s vocal styles, show that the band is willing to experiment in ways that push the format without breaking it.

4 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2015’s “Radio.” Given the strength of the last two albums, I might go with 3.5 before 4.5, but I can’t wait to head back to DC and see the band again next month, and if this were a song review instead of an album review, “Down That Road Again” would get 6 whiskey bottles out of 5. You can buy the album on the Steeps’ website.

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