Steep Canyon Rangers Honor Home State With Live Album, ‘North Carolina Songbook’

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Steep Canyon Rangers | North Carolina Songbook | (Yep Roc Records)

3.5 out of 5 stars

North Carolina is a wellspring of deep musical heritage. It has given the world many of the American songbook’s greatest storytellers – from the sheer heart of soul legend Ben E. King to the instinctual pluck of Doc Watson. Hailing from Asheville, six-piece bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers pay tribute to their home state and its vast artistic tapestry on their new eight-song release. North Carolina Songbook is an earnest celebration, containing reworkings of iconic pop, soul and folk tunes into thorny Americana-brushed compositions.

A long and storied career, stretched across more than 10 records, including several Steve Martin collaborations, Steep Canyon Rangers have become a staple at the annual MerleFest, a roots performance set in Wilkesboro. During this year’s festivities, the group traveled through the state’s rich history to record a live oral history, of sorts – upturning James Taylor’s tender lullaby “Sweet Baby James” (from the 1970 album of the same name) into a wistful western ballad and Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” (1965) into a front-porch toe-tapper.

An interpretation of “Stand by Me,” which King released in 1961, keeps the original’s signature swampiness intact but offers a more jagged vocal yearning. “No, I won’t shed a tear,” crows frontman Woody Platt. The band – Graham Sharp (banjo, vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin, mandola, vocals), Nicky Sanders (fiddle, vocals), Mike Ashworth (drums, vocals) and Barrett Smith (bass, vocals) – transform the groundbreaking work into masterful artifacts of their very own.

The new version of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” (1976) honors the Appalachian finger-picking style while carving out a blistering three-minute outro. Jazz standard “Blue Monk” (recorded by Thelonious Monk in 1954) is given an expected string-laden facelift, slinking along the melody with a breezy, conversational tone, and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (a 1925 Charlie Poole record, later interpreted by Earl Scruggs in 1962) is an apt exhibit of the band’s natural swing style.

North Carolina Songbook cherishes the spirit and legacy of the past, wrapping such classic pieces with a keen eye for progressive arrangements and uproarious energy, but it remains tried and true to what’s always worked: good songwriting and skillful playing. The live record, which comes on the heels of Steep Canyon Rangers’ collaboration with Boyz II Men (“Be Still Moses),”  releases this Record Store Day Black Friday (November 29) on Yep Roc Records.

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