Steep Canyon Rangers’s Out in the Open is defined more than anything else by its subtlety, which may seem a bit unusual for a bluegrass album. After all, bluegrass is a genre largely known for its dexterous musicianship and flashy soloing. There’s certainly plenty of deft playing on display throughout the album—from banjo player Graham Sharp and fiddler Nicky Sanders in particular—and the vocal arrangements offer supple harmonies. But the intricate musicianship is supported by an eclectic bunch of songs, which expand the parameters of bluegrass by incorporating elements of folk, country, old-time boogie, and even singer-songwriter introspection.
Part of the credit is due to Joe Henry, who’s made a name for himself producing Americana artists—Solomon Burke, Rodney Crowell, the Carolina Chocolate Drops—who fall within certain musical traditions without ever being beholden to them. He gives the Steep Canyon Rangers room to flex their own resourcefulness, while keeping the album sounding warm and lively.
Some of the songs on Out in the Open defy categorization: The title track is stomping and shambolic, falling somewhere between juke-joint blues and turn-of-the-century mountain music. The banjo and fiddle solos subside in favor of raucous blasts of harmonica and a pounding kick drum—not instruments most commonly associated with bluegrass.
It’s evident that the Steep Canyon Rangers have little desire to go about proving their bluegrass bona fides.
The album also takes an emotionally varied approach, with the band splitting the difference between the pensive and the playful. The goofy title track and the woozy “Shenandoah Valley”—especially old-timey in its sound, gently swinging and punch-drunk on its harmonies—are grounded by introspective moments like “Going Midwest,” a forlorn ballad that’s sparsely arranged for voice and guitar. It sounds more like something from a contemporary folk group like the Milk Carton Kids than an example of traditional bluegrass, yet it fits within the album’s broad scope and loose sensibility.
Throughout Out in the Open, the lyrics reflect the music’s restlessness, with several songs voicing a sense of displacement. “Can’t Get Home” is written from the perspective of a soldier who’s seen horrors he can’t unsee—a sentiment that comes up again in a Bob Dylan’s anti-war song “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” Restlessness and alienation are also evident in “Let Me Out of This Town,” where the narrator is desperate to leave a place where he no longer feels at ease, while “When She Was Mind” chronicles a different sort of dislocation: the feeling of being lost in memory and regret.
A dozen albums into their career, it’s evident that the Steep Canyon Rangers have little desire to go about proving their bluegrass bona fides. In the end, for all of Out in the Open’s dazzling musicianship, what makes the greatest impression is its rich and varied songwriting, unassumingly yet unmistakably moving the boundaries of what this genre can be.