Rooted and Restless: Acoustic travelogues from Steep Canyon Rangers, I’m With Her

see you around

American folk music is rife with restlessness; its backroads and byways are well-trod by lonesome hobos and wayfaring strangers; by ramblers, drifters, lovers and leavers. On two new albums, restlessness is both a theme and an aesthetic. Steep Canyon Rangers’ Out in the Open and I’m With Her’s See You Around are both travelogues, full of weary and weathered but ultimately hopeful songs about change, transition, and movin’ on. And, both albums embody roots music idioms while also subtly pushing at the boundaries. These records are respectful of tradition without ever being beholden to it; they are eager to offer an expansive and subtly progressive take on familiar forms.

Few bands have done more to expand bluegrass’ cultural cache than the Rangers, a fleet-fingered North Carolina troupe now well-decorated for their work in support of Steve Martin. Martin doesn’t appear anywhere on Out in the Open, which means there’s more air time for singer/guitar player Woody Platt and singer/banjoist Graham Sharp. It also means there’s room in the fold for another renaissance man, this time producer Joe Henry, who’s got an extensive track record working with artists who both embody and elaborate the grammar of folk music. (Give a listen to his albums with Hayes Carll and Joan Baez, among others.) Henry gives the Rangers room to roam, which happens to be one of the things bluegrass is really great for: On up-tempo songs with locomotive rhythms, the Rangers sound like they’re racing into open horizons, sketching the invisible boundaries of an untamed frontier. “Let Me Out of This Town,” the most locomotive of the bunch, is the jittery confession of a man bursting to escape from small-town monotony, set to a frenzy of banjo notes that sound like a train hellbent on careening off the tracks. Escape isn’t an option for the narrator in “Can’t Get Home,” a deceptively rollicking tune about a soldier imprisoned in his own memories. Songs like these and “Roadside Anthems”—where nimble mandolin work weaves through galloping banjo and loping fiddle—offer familiar bluegrass pyrotechnics, speed and virtuosity in service of melodic purity. Yet there are just as many moments that prove how pliable bluegrass orthodoxy can be. A campfire lullaby called “Going Midwest”—where a man packs his bags and says goodbye to everything he’s ever known—is carried by acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies; it’s spectral and spare, singer/songwriter introspection that recalls no one more than The Milk Carton Kids. The title song, a rickety construction of puffed harmonica and steady-thumping kick drums, is a shambolic delight, sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing but staying upright through sheer whimsy and will. Its good-natured goofiness is eclipsed only by “Shenandoah Valley,” where the Rangers slow things down considerably for a bit of old-timey soft-shoe, rhapsodizing about a romantic dalliance with the power to stop time.

These are all subtle shake-ups that reveal a musical tradition in constant dialog with itself, in service of songs that grope for solid ground in a world gone topsy-turvy. “Farmers and Pharaohs” is a mirrored hall of romantic regrets, given folksy flourishes by Nicky Sander’s swooping fiddle. “I learned the hard way/ Now it’s too late/ If I could take back that very day,” the song goes, and you hardly need the clause completed: It’s the worst moment of a man’s life, captured in amber, a talisman and a mile-marker born of wisdom and rue. Similarly, “When She Was Mine” tells one of the oldest stories in the world, and it tells it all right there in its title. The ringer in the bunch is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a Dylan cast-off-turned-standard, here adorned with mossy harmonies that make it sound ancient. It’s a soldier’s windswept lament; he knows he can’t escape death, but at least he can go out with dignity. He fits in well on Out in the Open, an album that ennobles tradition by leaning into change.

The same could be said of See You Around, the debut album from I’m With Her, just about the super-est group imaginable within today’s acoustic roots scene. A working unit since 2014, the all-ladies band is so named for their embrace of collaboration and camaraderie, values they uphold throughout this ego-free set. The group—Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan—discovered an easy chemistry through back-stage jams at various concert halls and festivals; wrote the lion’s share of their album together, save for a stray Gillian Welch cover; and convened with producer Ethan Johns, who gives the album a clean, spare production—mostly just voice, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle— that leaves them no room to hide. (So unembellished is the production, the introduction of electric fuzz in “I-89” feels just slightly less disruptive than Jack White’s adoption of a bass line in “Seven Nation Army,” all those years ago.) Rather than embalming the album in austerity, though, Johns’ tidiness highlights the band’s sophistication and allure—the melodic precision and emotional acuity in their songs; the casualness with which they blend bluegrass, folk, and country traditions; and the way the three of them only ever sound like one person, whether trading verses or harmonizing together. If the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band built for speed and showmanship, I’m With Her trades in sly seduction—songs that are winsome both in their earthiness and in their seamless virtuosity. Listen to how “Game to Lose” rises from doleful, fiddle-led verses to a hard-strummed, staccato chorus, reminiscent of the progressive string band music Watkins innovated in her Nickel Creek days; or, to the hazy hypnosis in “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a loping and languid tryst that turns southern sultriness into something atmospheric and enticing.

See You Around—its very title suggesting movement and separation—is a scrapbook of stories, many of them involving travel and transition. It’s an appropriately frayed collection, full of loose ends and spritely invention—consider the weightless harmonies that hold “Wild One” aloft, or the ragged spontaneity of “Waitsfield,” an instrumental rag—yet it also feels like it adds up to something complete, a lifetime of experience and regret, seen from a vantage point that’s clear-eyed without being callous. World-weariness fleshes out even the most archetypical tales: “Overland” is a railroad song that finds relief in the turned page: “Oh I’ve lived through more than I could tell/ I’ve sold all that I could sell/ Finally leaving it behind, goodbye, farewell.” And it’s not the only wayfaring tune here; “I-89,” built from layers of delicate picking and wheezing blues, imagines wanderlust as a survival instinct: “If there was another way out I’d take it/ If there was another way down I’d go.” Feminine agency animates romantic arrangements of all varieties, even as the songs reflect just how much these entanglements change and shape us: “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” is about a dalliance in the orchard, told with just the right blend of discretion and lustiness, while “Close it Down” is about a barroom fling with a married man, one in which both parties see things for what they are, and even extend empathy to the wife who’s back home. And then there’s “Ain’t That Fine,” a song of experience that’s all about accepting mistakes and moving on, told with wistful humor (“I can’t believe the things I put my mother through”) and hard-won contentment (“Some folks have it better/ But oh, we’ve got it good”). There are bruises aplenty here, but I’m With Her never stops to count them: See You Around is concerned with the events that push us forward, not the ones that hold us back; it’s a document of evolution, and the travelogue of pilgrims making progress.

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