Kelly Willis

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.

One of country’s best voices, and two great new songs – An Album Review: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis’ “Our Year”

Our YearLess than a year after their last album, “Cheater’s Game” (one of 2013’s best), Texas country husband/wife team Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis have put out a new one, “Our Year.” Their sound is certainly more traditional, and their lyrics deeper, than anything on the radio today.

I really like this album – and I loved seeing them in concert last week at Alexandria, VA,’s Birchmere (with Dale Watson as the opener, but I’ll review both concerts in a forthcoming post). I will say that I think I liked last year’s “Cheater’s Game” a little more. It feels a little like the duo came up with 23 amazing songs and picked the 13 best for an album, but then realized the remaining 10 were still strong enough for another project. Sometimes that doesn’t turn out too well – see Springsteen’s “Magic” followed by “Working on a Dream” – but in this case, it’s not a bad thing at all. If “Cheater’s Game”‘s larger shadow were to disappear, “Our Year” would stand very well on its own.

Overall, the voices are great, and it’s a solid balance between uptempo and melancholy. The only thing that holds it back is that it’s a little softer than “Cheater’s Game” – there’s nothing adventurous here. It’s comfortable, maybe even safe. But sometimes, that’s okay. Towards the end of last week’s show in Virginia, Robison told the crowd that they’d thrown a lot of new stuff at us that night which is always risky, but we’d seemed to take it well. Yes, Bruce, we did – and there’s no need to apologize at all. It’s new stuff, but it’s good stuff.

I’ll come back to the album in a moment. First, some context. Willis has one of the absolute best voices in country music and Robison is one of the better songwriters. He penned the #1 hits “Wrapped for George Strait (I’ll write a separate post later about that song’s origin story, it was great), “Travelin’ Soldier” for the Dixie Chicks, and  “Angry All the Time” for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (I like Robison’s rendition better – he does sad well), as well as Strait’s #6 “Desperately.” As for Willis, she had a few songs chart in the early ’90s, though unfortunately none reached the top 40s. I’m personally most familiar with 1993’s #72 “Whatever Way the Wind Blows.” My mom had a now out-of-print compilation CD of Texas country that included that song and was also my introduction to Bob Wills. When I saw recently that Willis had sung it, I thought it was a cover, until I listened again – “No, this is it!!! How was that only #72, I thought it was a huge hit????” Nope, my mom just played that album a lot. And decades later, I’m still better off for it.

Back to the album. “Our Year” is relatively stripped down yet still well-produced. The smaller, rootsier instrumental feel, more than the relatively light tough of the steel guitars or fiddles, is what makes it Texas country. Willis’ music has lost the commercial sheen it used to have, making it even better than it already was, and Robison is very down to earth, as well as a smoother tenor than you usually hear in country.

It’s a mix of covers and new originals. The first track is “Departing Louisiana” by Robison’s sister Robyn Ludwick. Thematically, it reminds me of a slower version of Mac Davis’ “Texas in My Rear View Mirror.” It’s probably my third favorite track on the album, after two Robison originals. It leads into Walter Hyatt’s “Motor City Man,” a rock-influenced but fiddle-strong peppier salute to a better life that Willis does wonders with.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, 06-06-14

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, 06-06-14

Track three, “Carousel,” is a Robison original about how hard relationships are, and it’s probably the best song on the album (though “Anywhere but Here” is a close runner-up). It’s got a great melody and uses the steel guitar very effectively for a sad feel. “There comes a time the music has to stop, it’s the end of the ride… But people love a carousel, and no one is to blame.” Even though Willis’ voice is the album’s real star, this showcases Robison’s quite well.

That leads to a Willis original, “Lonely for You.” This is a really interesting one to hear a husband and wife sing together – it’s a song about missing an ex. Several of the next-up songs are similar in that regard, too — but it sounds great and it’s well written. That leads to a lover’s duet, “A Hanging On,” that’s been covered many times, but sounds great here too. Next up, before he was a legendary producer, T-Bone Burnett wrote “Shake Yourself Loose” in 1986. There’s nothing new about this sound, but the couple trade verses and their voices are perfect.

You know the next one – a cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley Pta.” In concert, Robison said this was one of those pairings where the song and the voice (Willis’) seem perfect for each other. Indeed, they’ve apparently been playing it in concert long before recording it, and he’s definitely not wrong. Her vocals are great here. But I’ll also say this – it’s disturbing how much this song, a social critique, feels like it could have been written in 2014, not 1968. It can seem like there’s as much sexism and hypocrisy today as ever.

“Anywhere But Here” is another Robison original and another of the album’s highlights. The melody here is great, and Robison sure writes good choruses. This is about the fading memories of yesterdays gone by and a present that’s only getting harder. “But now it’s only stars and shadows, and heaven’s just a dream // I thought that I knew trouble, but the devil laughed at me // Any life that was worth living, any moment without fear // It’s getting harder to remember anywhere… but here.”  It’s a great pairing of lyrics and melody. Since Nashville foolishly seems intent on seeing Robison as just a songwriter, I hope a star picks this song up and slows it down just a little. I could see it being a potential melancholy hit for a voice like Gary Allan’s.

The album closes with Don Reid’s “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You” and the title track, “This Will Be Our Year,” by Chris White. The former is a nice uptempo tune to balance out the sadder “Anywhere,” and their voices blend together beautifully on the final, title track. Both are good covers, and a very fitting closer for a husband/wife duo who are riding success high and, as anyone in the audience can see, are clearly still in love.

3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 for “Our Year”, but I’ll admit I might be letting “Cheater’s Game” – a 4.5 – influence me too much. Maybe “Our Year” actually deserves a 4. It really is a good album and I do recommend it.

There aren’t many good YouTube clips of “Our Year” material featuring both singers – so here’s a good duet one from “Cheater’s Game”, then a solo from “Our Year.”