Steep Canyon Rangers | Mr. Taylor’s New Home
Bonfire Records 8001

By Anson Burtch

With much of today’s bluegrass music stretching to incorporate other genres, it’s refreshing to hear a pure bluegrass album with a modern take on that high lonesome sound. Mr. Taylor’s New Home by the Steep Canyon Rangers is just that – straight-ahead driving bluegrass in the traditional spirit of the old masters. In just a short time, Steep Canyon has gone from playing backyard barbeques in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to playing the main stage at this year’s Rockygrass festival in Colorado.

The Rangers’ second album, “Mr. Taylor’s New Home” firmly establishes them as one of the best new bluegrass acts on the scene. What stands out immediately is the songwriting. Ten of the twelve tracks are Steep Canyon originals, with banjo player Graham Sharp being the most prolific. His lyrics on the title track and “Hibriten Mountain” tell epic tales and evoke intense emotion in the confined space of four minutes. And while the songs are brand new, they sound as old as the hills.

The familiar bluegrass themes of love, longing, and killing run throughout the album. “Norma Jean,” penned by bass player Charles Humphrey, recalls a snowy winter night twenty years ago when Norma Jean lost her life. “Don’t Let My Heart Be Lonesome” pleads with an unrequited lover not to go, while “Hibriten Mountain” expresses a longing for the old homestead.

Steep Canyon’s excellent vocals create much of the rich sound on this album. Guitarist Woody Platt handles most of the lead vocals with a classic bluegrass voice reminiscent of a young Tony Rice. Fiddle player Lizzie Hamilton adds beautiful high harmonies when she’s not singing lead herself. No bluegrass album is complete without at least one gospel song, and the Rangers break out the four-part harmonies on “Good Old Country Baptizing.”

The instrumentation on Mr. Taylor’s New Home really makes this album stand out. Hamilton plays intricate fiddle lines that soar high above the music. Mandolin player Mike Guggino holds down the chops and breaks through with blistering solos. His instrumental “Knob Creek” has a melancholy backwoods feel, like a killing song without the words. Sharp’s banjo playing is very much in the Earl Scruggs style, with rollicking melody lines and lightning-fast breaks. “Road to Knoxville” blends the musicians together perfectly, creating a traveling feel while each member takes a turn in the lead.

The Steep Canyon Rangers have produced a highly original new album that even the stodgiest traditionalist would love. The combination of beautiful harmonies and expert picking make Mr. Taylor’s New Home a necessary addition to any bluegrass collection. With an eye on the past, the Steep Canyon Rangers are leading bluegrass into the future.

[Published on: 8/9/02]

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