Popularity can be troublesome. In the case of the Steep Canyon Rangers, it can even lead to an identity crisis. The Grammy Award-winning North Carolina string band has forged a new Americana sound out of bluegrass roots for nearly 18 years, its primary commercial prominence has come from work on Steve Martin’s comedy-minded banjo recordings of the past decade. With that came a reputation, for those unfamiliar with the progressive music that the Rangers make on their own, as Martin’s “backup band.”
“Out in the Open,” in its subtle way, reasserts the band’s independence. Operating as a sextet, its very makeup contradicts bluegrass tradition (a familiar quintet string band lineup augmented by a percussionist). But that’s just the beginning. The songs on “Out in the Open” seem largely uninterested in bluegrass as anything other than a blueprint.
Where that puts the band is in an intriguing spot.
The Rangers don’t favor a heavily country-pop stance designed for radio play, as so many modern bluegrassers do, nor are they complete renegades in the mold of genre-bending thrillseekers like Punch Brothers. The turf staked out in “Out in the Open” picks up directly where preceding albums, 2013’s “Tell the Ones I Love” and 2015’s “Radio,” left off: with a hybrid sound that assimilates bittersweet but Western-leaning folk, blues, a touch of pre-bluegrass country and a general unhurried yet spacious quality that makes the music as open as the great outdoors. That’s providing, of course, that your idea of the great outdoors favors Colorado over the Carolinas. Hence, perhaps, the album’s title.
It’s no surprise, then, that the bulk of “Out in the Open” doesn’t take its cue from bluegrass modernists like Alison Krauss and Union Station. The reference points here, in terms of vocal harmonies, compositional approach and instrumental cunning, take a step back to the 1970s and ’80s string-band revisions of Hot Rize. You hear it in the way fiddler Nicky Sanders and banjo player Graham Sharp propel a darkened lyrical shuffle set up by vocalist and guitarist Woody Platt and percussionist Mike Ashworth on “Love Harder,” or the melancholy spin of Old World fiddle and mandolin colors during the album-opening heartbreaker “Farmer and Pharoahs.” The feel turns robustly folkish in the proud vocal turns of the 1962 Bob Dylan obscurity “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” (the album’s only cover) and the sunnier, harmony-rich playfulness of “Shenandoah Valley.”
There is another important agent at work on “Out in the Open”: producer Joe Henry. A mercurial song stylist with a flair for atmospherics on his own records, Henry is remarkably straightforward when working on other, more roots-conscious projects. Here, he provides a gorgeous clarity to the recording, especially on the crystalline blues of “When She Was Mine.” Such is the crowning touch in placing a band often viewed as a backup unit out in the glorious open.