With Morning Shift, their 14th studio album and their first after the departure of founding member Woody Platt, the Steep Canyon Rangers deliver a dozen songs as evidence they have a firm grasp on who they are and the music they play. Joined by guitarist and singer-songwriter Aaron Burdett, the band has put together a collection of mostly original songs that showcase their stunning talent and range, moving comfortably from the core of bluegrass to the edges.
The album opens with “Hominy Valley,” set in the present-day Swannanoa Hills neighborhood in Asheville, North Carolina, as residential development is encroaching on the grounds with deep history. The narrator is haunted by the spirit of a long-dead Cherokee scout about whom he sings, “I think he’s watching me still.”
Other spirits inhabit Morning Shift, too. “Ghost of Glasgow” relates the account of a traveler searching local taverns for his lost brother. A cab driver explains the origin of the local ghost, unfolding a story through other characters that pull the traveler — and listener — in.
The more narrative songs have strong characterization, too, none more than “Second in Line.” This song is told from the perspective of the son of a small-town gangster, the classic naïve narrator. More Fredo Corleone than Michael, he postures and boasts of “count[ing] our riches in the middle of the night,” clearly eager to move out of his place as “the man standing second in line.” His twisted logic is darkly amusing as he assures himself, “she’s just a half sister to me / so it ain’t half wrong that she’s my bride.”
The sole instrumental cut on the album, a medley of “Old Stone House/Handlebars/Chimney Rock,” sets the stage for the breadth of the album. Coming early on the record, it opens with a melody that’s part waltz, part dirge before shifting into high gear. Likewise, the other songs on Morning Shift run the musical gamut. Prayer-like “Above My Burden” shows obvious influences from first-generation bluegrass with the most stripped-down instrumentation on the album. The lyrics open with images of a “dark and narrow” path before moving into “brilliant morning light,” a central image to which the band returns in the title track.
Morning Shift develops a theme of “charging ahead” that begins both lyrically and instrumentally with the album’s light-hearted second track, “Deep End,” with new guy Burdett explaining:
I’m the guy who jumps in the deep end
Find out quick if I’m sinking or swimming
Long ago threw caution to the wind
The forward movement of “Morning Shift” is similar, though the mood is more contemplative, noting, “even worse than a bad decision is never deciding anything” with the desire “to know that I’ve done something / I’ve done something right.”
The album also spotlights the vocal magic of Steep Canyon Rangers, still intact with the new lineup and best demonstrated on “Birds of Ohio.” The opening harmonies have a Greek chorus effect, laying down a canvas for Graham Sharp’s rich lead vocal. By contrast, Burdett carries the simple melody on Robbie Fulks’ “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Girls” as the sparer harmonies leave room for strings before the acapella close. Bass player Barrett Smith also switches out lead and harmony on the album, and guest John Cowan and Morning Shift producer Darrell Scott join on harmonies.
With Morning Shift, the Steep Canyon Rangers have curated an album of songs that showcases the band at its musical best, ending with the plaintive “Recommend Me.” Listeners are certain to do just that.
Steep Canyon Rangers’ Morning Shift is out Sept. 8 on Yep Roc Records.