“The album captures the emotional immediacy of the music. It sounds just like what someone would hear if he or she opened the door to the studio and walked in on us playing,” Graham Sharp told me recently about the recording of the band’s new album, Out in the Open. Producer Joe Henry gathered the band, and they stood in a circle in the studio as they recorded live. “Joe would jump right in and go for the heart of it,” says Sharp; “we were very relaxed from the start. We cut the first song after three or four takes, and then we all settled in. There’s only one part that’s overdubbed — a tambourine on one track.”
The songs on Out in the Open celebrate openness, the joy of nature, the incongruities of the freedom of open spaces and the control of those who would close those spaces, and the vagaries of love and friendship. The album opens with a minor-chord ballad, “Farmers and Pharaohs,” that might be a mournful dirge if not for the sprightly mandolin and fiddle turns on the bridge. Sharp wrote the song with Sarah Siskind — “I love her ear for melody,” he says — and it cannily juxtaposes two unlikely figures, farmers and pharaohs, who deal constantly with the transition between life and death, holding close and letting go. The song opens with a warning not to let “your one true love go,” for the singer has learned this the hard way. Eventually, all that’s lost — love, crops in the field — turn to dust beneath our feet, and by then it’s too late to get them back.
“Let Me Out of This Town” scampers along from its opening banjo riffs, which flow beneath the entire tune like an urgent stream. The liveliness of the tune masks the gravity of its lyrics — “dead end street alone and cold/fighting off a fever that’ll steal your soul/never had nothing in this high-rise world/don’t take my heart don’t take my girl” — but also nicely captures the urgency the singer feels to flee.
The title track jauntily ambles along, fueled by Sharp’s punchy harmonica, even as the singer reveals he’s no longer willing to live a lie and now stands “out in the open/just me and the truth” for his lover and the world to see.
“Shenandoah Valley” cleanses the palate, even though it’s a song about leave-taking. A merry little air — “I’d like to stay and dilly dally in the Shenandoah Valley all day” — replete with whistling and shambling banjo, the singer eventually reveals that much as he’d like to stay, he has to leave with his platoon from Camp Lejeune and fly “halfway around this old world.” In a single song, the Steep Canyon Rangers capture a sense of place, the longing to stay in that place that defines you, and the memory of the place you carry with you as you travel.
The spare instrumentation, the poignant honesty of the lyrics, the palpable images of life on the road create an enduring and affecting beauty on Out in the Open.