Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers – Rare Bird Alert

With great humour and surprising sentiment, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers take to Rare Bird Alert with precision. This is a record of enjoyable bluegrass, but it’s also a record of intelligence and raw musicality.

Martin is known to many as quite a banjo player. On Comedy Is Not Pretty!, Steve pulled off an instrumental number called “Drop Thumb Medley.” By 2001, he won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance for his work on Earl Scruggs’ remake of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” In 2009, Martin released a solo record called The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. The album, which featured Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and other musicians, won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.

For Rare Bird Alert, Martin has joined forces with North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers. The quintet features Woody Platt on guitar and lead vocals, Graham Sharp on banjo and vocals, Mike Guggino on mandolin and vocals, Charles R. Humphrey III on bass and vocals, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle and vocals.

Rare Bird Alert also includes a couple of guest stars. Some guy named Paul McCartney provides vocals. The Dixie Chicks lend their services as well.

Martin, who is also coincidentally a juggler, has written the songs for the record and they take a deeply personal sense in some areas. In other areas, they take on a sort of absurdist humour that still lands very close to the chest. The songs are fun without being silly and poignant without being sappy.

“Best Love” features McCartney, who is apparently quite a stamp designer. The track is supported by banjo and fiddle and was intended to be an instrumental at first. Martin “began jotting down some lyrics” and called in a favour to the former member of Wings.

“You” lends itself perfectly to the harmonies of the Dixie Chicks. It’s a slower song, one that feels almost sombre were it not for the beauty of Martin’s lyrics. The Steep Canyon Rangers provide deceptively simply accompaniment, provoking a mood of comfort and pleasant dreams. It really is a lovely piece of work.

There are a number of instrumentals on Rare Bird Alert, including the title track and the wonderfully energetic “Hide Behind a Rock.” Sanders earns his paycheque on the latter, that’s for sure.

Also of note is the funny “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” a piece that toys with the gospel origins of bluegrass in a way so as to not offend any particular religious or irreligious party. Martin notes that the song has always received a great reaction at the live shows, so it makes sense that Rare Bird Alert features a live recording of the piece.

All in all, Rare Bird Alert is a bright, colourful record. Martin certainly knows his bluegrass and this album should cement him as a solid player in the genre. The Steep Canyon Rangers are superb, too, and the guest vocalists add a nice layer of freshness to the mix – especially that McCartney guy.

Article originally published as Music Review: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers – Rare Bird Alert at Blogcritics.org

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