Collaboration is a recurring theme for bluegrass supremos Steep Canyon Rangers. Their most prominent partner is comedian and skilled banjo player Steve Martin whose invitation to tour ten years ago led to recording two albums together. As it happens the Rangers are in the UK with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short next week. While there’s no doubt Martin has introduced the Steep Canyon Rangers to a global audience, in their own right they are one of America’s biggest “new” bluegrass acts regularly headlining bluegrass festivals such as Telluride, Merlefest and FreshGrass.
Be Still Moses continues the Rangers’ collaborative penchant but in a completely different direction, and one much closer to their North Carolina home. Mention Asheville, NC in a musical context and the response will focus on its thriving roots music scene, bluegrass particularly. But Asheville is also home to a world class symphony orchestra whose executive director David Whitehill, found himself discussing with local music producer Michael Selverne and Jessica Tomasin of Echo Mountain recording studio how they could bring together the city’s musical talents. Five years later they came up with Be Still Moses, a musical tour de force produced by Selverne who blended the classical orchestra with bluegrass to record a collection of Rangers hits and rarities. For the title track they added a further ingredient, Philadelphia soul legends Boyz II Men.
There is nothing new in a classical orchestra playing pop or rock and it’s fair to say not all have been an unqualified success. How does bluegrass blend with classical not to mention a three-way intersection with soul? Answer, Be Still Moses, which is an unqualified success. The orchestral strings flow majestically like a big river while dipping above and beneath the surface fly the Rangers bluegrass strings. It is not hyperbole to say that the whole project is completely mesmerising.
Steep Canyon Rangers fans will recognise old favourites, even if with some they have to wait while the orchestra does its bit. The Asheville Symphony give ‘Easy To Love’ a palatial opening with a fanfare of lush strings and brass that subside into a gentle woodwind section. Sounding like a movie score up they soar again and in come the strings of the bluegrass boys as vocalist Woody Platt’s rich baritone takes over. The arrangement gives space to both orchestra and bluegrass band but when they join together they find an even higher level.
That space for both Rangers and Symphony to do their own thing before taking flight together is a feature throughout. The songs old and new are instantly recognisable and they are bluegrass. A Steep Canyon Rangers show leaves you breathless, they certainly don’t need any spur but in a way the orchestra gives them a further boost. ‘Call The Captain’ slows into a meditative phase, possibly at risk of losing the song but just as you wonder where this might be going, the symphonic crescendo lets in the reassuring bluegrass and we’re back on familiar territory. But the digression was fun too.
‘Radio’ flies along like two thoroughbreds given free rein. The orchestra’s strings vie with the fiddle of Ranger, Nicky Sanders. Platt’s pitch is set perfectly around both. Also at pace is ‘Let Me Out Of This Town’ from their most recent studio album, Out In The Open. Here the Rangers are firmly in control with the orchestra in a much more supportive role. From the same album the haunting ‘Farmers and Pharoahs’ undulates from a lonely guitar picking start through the orchestral waves to Platt’s wise advice, “All you farmers and pharoahs/ Don’t let your one true love go/ She will comfort you in your darkest dreams/ She will wash all your troubles clean”.
These partners don’t just find a groove and stick to it. Together they give ‘Between Midnight and the Dawn’ and ‘Las Vegas’ a distinctly jazzy feel to push the boundaries further. Equally, title track with Boyz II Men is completely reworked. Most striking, unsurprisingly, are the vocals. Platts gives way to Wanya Morris whose ad-libbing takes the project into completely new territory. It works.
But it is bluegrass that defines Steep Canyon Rangers. All aboard for ‘Auden’s Train’, written with Steve Martin, Platt means it when he sings, “Fly like an airplane and don’t pull up short/ Till you brake for Grand Central Station, New York”. For speed this beast leaves The Orange Blossom Special far behind as the Rangers and orchestra coax every last note out of their steaming locomotive. Be Still Moses shows how Steep Canyon Rangers, the Asheville Symphony and Boys II Men enhance some very fine bluegrass songs by blending their different musical genres without any loss of integrity.