“I did my first tour in ‘94/I was following the Dead, I didn’t fight no war,” Graham Sharp sings on Steep Canyon Rangers’ new LP.
It’s one of just a few moments of levity on the otherwise deeply introspective Out in the Open, the 12th LP (including joints with Steve Martin) from the nearly 20-year-old bluegrass sextet. And even that fun-liner is tucked inside of “Can’t Get Home,” a mid-life lament about returning to your childhood house only to find your parents are gone and the pencil mark that charted your growth is buried under layers of new paint.
“I can find the house, but I can’t get home,” the baritone Sharp sings over a jaunty rhythm that belies the song’s melancholy.
That happy-music/sad-lyrics juxtaposition is the special sauce of Out in the Open, which consists of 11 originals – plus a gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die in my Footsteps” – that tackle losing love, coming face-to-face with your own dishonesty and trudging off to war against a soundscape of Neil Young-styled country, twin-guitar folk and jazz-infused swing rendered in (mostly) traditional bluegrass instrumentation by banjoist Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolin player Mike Guggino, bassist Charles Humphrey III and drummer Mike Ashworth, who gives the Rangers a bit of non-traditional bluegrass backbone.
The title track is an infectious ditty with soaring harmonies and squawking harmonica that finds the narrator lamenting his lying ways; “Shenandoah Valley” is a whimsical banjo tune in which the carefree and whistling protagonist shares his desire to “dilly-dally in the Shenandoah Valley all day” instead of shipping out; and “When She Was Mine” is a breezy little number that explores the hollowed-out feeling that comes with a broken heart.
“You should have known me when she was mine,” Platt, the group’s tenor, sings before his bandmates join him on the chorus:
“Such a beautiful well/I fell in too deep/turns out the water wasn’t mine to keep/all that time, I swore that I was thirsty/and I was blind/when she was mine,” they sing over a wash of fiddle, mandolin and banjo.
These are songs that lull the listener into a false sense of sunshiny pleasure until the cloudy lyrics reveal themselves and the true nature of Out in the Open, which is less about freedom and more about oftentimes-frightening reality. That these songs are wrapped in virtuosic playing and flawless harmonies is what keeps them from being a drag and go a long way toward explaining why Martin scooped up the Rangers to be his backing band.