The title song to the Steep Canyon Rangers' new album, Tell the Ones I Love, doesn't scream bluegrass — at least, not initially.
The first sounds are gentle but restless notes generated from mandolin and guitar that seem to hang effortlessly in the air. Then singer Woody Platt sets up the story line. It's a saga of departure, with the mode of transportation being the final outbound train leaving the station. What is presented is the last chance for a life-changing exit.
Then the harmonies swell while maintaining a sensibility more in line with the early country-folk sounds of early-'70s Austin, Texas, than of bluegrass. Even an emerging chatter of banjo works against convention, because it's a rhythmic device against that most un-bluegrass of instruments: drums.
The percussion starts to gallop as the chorus tells us this train to a new beginning is running late. "There ain't no end of the line," Platt sings. "The hardest part of heaven is making it wait."
The tune is one of six songs on Tell the Ones I Love written by Rangers banjoist and harmony vocalist Graham Sharp. Two of them lead off the album; the remaining four close it. Two additional works he co-wrote are sandwiched in between. So if anyone has a feel for the modernization of this once staunchly traditional bluegrass band, and the unlikely artistic alliances it has made in recent years, Sharp is the guy.
"It's always fun to bring songs to the band because stuff turns out in a way that you never really imagined," said Sharp, who will perform with the Rangers at the year's final taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
"The music just sort of takes on a life of its own. You have a song in your head that you hear in a certain way. Then you bring it to the band, and maybe half the time it turns out that way and the other half it turns into something that is noticeably different. It's a fun process. As a songwriter, I've learned to be very open minded. There is a lot of talent in the band and a lot of good ears. So the excitement comes from just putting these songs out and seeing what happens."
Tell the Ones I Love benefits from what has been a busy and fruitful few years. The band's preceding record, Nobody Knows You, won a Grammy, and the Rangers' second career as back-up ensemble for comedian/banjoist Steve Martin bloomed into a 2013 tour and album that brought aboard pop singer Edie Brickell.
"We learned to go with what we picked up from some of Edie's material. We learned different ways to put the songs together, like holding some of the fire in a song for a certain section rather than just coming out with a whole song blasting in your face. We let some words get out there first and then kind of introduced the elements as you went. It was just part of our musical growth. We've been such a focused bluegrass band for so long. Now we're starting to branch out and do some other things."
One of the biggest things to come the Rangers' way outside of the Martin/Brickell project was an invitation to join Americana hero Levon Helm at one of the Midnight Ramble concerts presented at his barn studio in Woodstock, N.Y. That, in turn, led to an offer to record Tell the Ones I Love there. Sadly, Helm died before the Rangers' recording sessions began with producer Larry Campbell.
"We went to the Ramble just a couple of months before Levon died," Sharp said. "They told us when we went up there that the only place we have for you to sit during the show was right behind his drum kit. So we were like, 'Oh, wow. Don't throw me in the briar patch.' So we ended up sitting directly behind him. To hear Levon and how he plays that way was just amazing. Then we got to meet him afterwards and he was really complimentary of the set we had done before his band played. That's when he mentioned they had never made a bluegrass record at his studio and that he would love to have us bring the band up there and do that."
"Honestly, there was almost no indication at the time of the severity of Levon's condition. But the offer to record at his studio was always out there for us. There was no way we were going to take that lightly."
IF YOU GO
'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Steep Canyon Rangers/Shannon Whitworth
When: 6:45 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.
Tickets: $10. Reservations at (859) 252-8888.
Learn more: Woodsongs.com
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.