Culturally, we seem to like the idea of the struggling artist, someone who suffers for their work and who’s work seems to benefit from the struggle that goes into it. Would we revere people like Hemingway, for example, if their lives were idyllic and the only drama was in the pages of their books. I’m not sure the work would seem as honest, and that’s true in music as well. Roni Stoneman was a banjo player with the storied Stoneman family, and her relatives were there with the Carter Family at the Bristol sessions. She went on to star on Hee Haw and, when that was over, descended into crushing poverty and abuse at the hands of her husband. I heard her in interview once when she was asked to give advice to a 12-year-old musician. Stoneman said, “Enjoy the music that you play, because, most of the time, that’s about all you’re going to get out of it.”
If there is an opposite to that story, at least in the world of bluegrass music, it’s that of the Steep Canyon Rangers. There is a goofy, frat party quality to them, but in a good way—they seem to be five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, out to have some fun. Then, when they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wife is a friend of a friend of the band—they became his touring band and, ever since Martin’s Rare Bird Alert (2011) they’ve been his studio band as well. As a result they’ve gone to places—Carnegie Hall, recording with Paul McCartney—that most bluegrass musicians can only ever dream of. They’ve toured big halls and done a wealth of media, again, which most bluegrass musicians, including some of the greats, never attain.
It’s easy to envy them, but then again, it’s equally easy to wonder what might have been had they not had (at least what seems) such an effortless rise. Martin himself considers this idea from time to time, as in the current issue of Fretboard Journal when he says, thinking of when he first started working with the Steeps, “I was a little bit worried. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll taint them a bit. They’re a traditional bluegrass band, and they’re teaming up with a comedian.’”
The fact is, he indeed may have. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music, and the gaze within the writing, let’s face it, is rarely from they heights down. Instead, bluegrass, like the blues, is about being down and trying to look up.
I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. On their latest release, Tell the Ones I Love, they break from tradition with bluegrass (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding many of the sounds of that other hard-luck music: country. Here are drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. They sing of hard times, as on “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken” though the music never really meets the sentiment of the lyric, nor does the lyric ever really develop the idea.
The musicianship is, of course, professional in every way, as these are five guys who know their way around their instruments. Songs like “Stand and Deliver” have a lovely sonic quality (and, in that case, is sung by Graham Sharp, providing a nice counterpoint to the typical lead voice for this band, Woody Platt).
The album was recorded in Woodstock in a barn on the property of the late Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band. Prior to Helm’s death he had been producing a series of events he called the Midnight Rambles, and the Steeps were involved with those. Not surprisingly, some of the material and production here approaches a tribute to Helm. “Camellia” has that lope-shouldered rhythm and harmony vocals that we associate with the Band.
“Bluer Words Were Never Spoken”
But, again, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. Helm, too, lived a life of hardship and discord that made so much of his best music really shine. When he sang of lost love and hardship, it had an honesty that, in so much pop and rock, is hard to come by. The Steeps make very nice music, and I wanted to love this release which, it has to be said, is the best work they’ve yet done. They are at their best in songs which stay closer to home, as on the instrumental “Graveyard Fields” and “Take the Wheel.” They make up for more derivative material, such as “Las Vegas.” But, as I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is still yet to come.