Tuesday, December 8, 2015

CD Review - The FREE Rangers

Image635851091428099749      It’s amazing the power that music has to bring old memories from the deepest parts of your mind back to the here and now. The new CD just released by The FREE Rangers, from the Richmond, Virginia area, has been doing that to me for a couple of weeks now….. 

     Just for a little history, this music has been in the developmental stages since 1979, when the core of the band started out as a duo called “The Stable Hands,” in Flagstaff, AZ. I’ve had the pleasure to see it blossom since the very beginning, thirty six years ago…… It was special then, and it’s only grown stronger, more pleasant and personally endearing with time.

       “The Stable Hands” consisted of Debbe Peck on vocals and rhythm guitar, and her husband, Steve Peck, on vocals, bass and some pretty fancy yodeling. They had great harmonies, a personable stage presence and a song list that covered country, bluegrass and Western tunes that gave them their own, one-of-a-kind sound. And did I mention that Debbe and Steve were, and still are, two of the dearest friends my wife, Mary Ann, and I have ever had? Maybe that’s why I’ll hear a certain inflection in one of their voices, or a specific harmony line and another good old time from way back then surprises me by coming back to light. There has been a lot of reflection going on in my head lately thanks to this new CD!

     For my bluegrass readers, I hope you’ll indulge me as I stray a bit from my usual, straight ahead bluegrass reviews. I wouldn’t have known about Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, Peter Rowan, John Starling, The Seldom Scene and a host of other bluegrass musicians if it had not been for my friendship with Debbe and Steve so many years ago. One of the nice things about being friends with other pickers, especially pickers from a completely different part of the good ol’ U S of A, is that their musical tastes and knowledge rub off on you. That was the case here, and the plethora of fine East Coast acoustic music I was exposed to because of my friendship with these two dear old friends was far reaching and important to my development as a musician. I’m hoping that the fact that The FREE Rangers, on this CD, are presenting more of a country, Americana and original acoustic brand of music doesn’t seem out of place to the bluegrass faithful here in the pages of Prescription Bluegrass.

     Today, Debbe and Steve are still playing together, but, now they are joined by two musical gentlemen that fill out this quartet quite nicely in a very eclectic and far “ranging” way.  Western is still their foundation, but with more dynamic excursions into original and old timey tunes. I find it very satisfying to hear how they’ve grown musically into this very diverse sound, and by playing with their new-found partners they have also expanded their talents to include lots of new and interesting musical adventures that I hadn’t heard before. Time sometimes hides progress from view, but, in this case it has shown a definite and positive upswing.

      Jim Norman, on resonator guitar and lap steel, engineered this recording at his own Blue Spark Studio, wrote two of the tunes presented here and also co-mixed it with Debbe. His songs, “Dirty Town,” sung by guitarist Rick Myers, and “One More Tune,” with lead vocal by Debbe, are both well written lyrically and melodically. His production work on this CD was also first rate, as was his playing. The tone of his resonator guitar is sweet and warm, and he plays with a sparing, confident and intuitive style. When Jim switches to lap steel, he adds an authentic Western feel, especially on “Along the Navajo Trail.” 

      Rick Myers, their other new “hand,” plays lead guitar, sings and also wrote three of the tunes on this CD. “Holler at the Moon” has a definite two-step danceability to it with lots of sweet backup vocals. Debbe steps in with the harmony part on the chorus’, and she and Steve add the ooohs and aaaahs. Steve’s solid walking bass line drives the rhythm for the dobro and guitar to solo above handily. Rick’s “Hitched Up With You” has a nice ¾ time feel that accents the sadness of the lyrics, and makes them even more poignant. More super harmony and oooohs and aaaaahs add more color to the total beauty of the dobro and guitar solos. 

The only instrumental presented here is Mr. Myers’ “Can You Dig It,” a minor key showcase for the whole band to shine on. I love the chord changes and Rick’s pickin’ excels on this composition. In talking to Debbe, she informed me that Rick plays a 1968 Martin D-18, with a slot headstock, that I may say sounds gorgeous, and he uses just his fingers, no pick!  Mighty nimble Rick! Mr. Norman’s harmonics on dobro during his solos are also an instrumental highlight. Debbe and Steve hold down the bottom end with a rhythmic tightness that only comes from years and years of playing together. Debbe plays a newer model Gibson Hummingbird style Pro and a 1967 D-28, both of which have a definite sounding presence, and I found that the mix was so good that I could pick out the different guitars by sound alone. It was almost like the two guitars were panned left and right in the mix.  All four players nailed this tune down!

      Original songs always sparks my interest, and Debbe and Steve have added four more tunes of their own to the project. Debbe’s “I Wasn’t Looking,” and “Hot! Hot!” are the kick off song and the last song respectively on the CD, and both add a sense of expectation to the final result. I knew Debbe was setting the listener up for more in both cases. More good songs to follow on the recording, and hope that the follow up CD to this one will be in the works soon! Debbe’s sense of adventure and fun make both songs enjoyable, and her ability to write with this level of professionalism makes me wonder how many more good songs she has tucked away. Her vocals are personal and vibrant, with her lyrics telling a good story that the arrangements make even better. Debbe even does a little bit of yodeling herself on “Hot! Hot,” and Steve gets his chance at a bass solo that is a plus to solos by the boys that will grab you by the ears. Love that lap steel, it always fits with a yodeling song!

     I’ve always been a big fan of the way Debbe and Steve sing together, and my favorite song here is one they wrote together called “Loving You.” It’s an upbeat, catchy and memorable melody that will stick in your head for hours, and the sincerity in their delivery and the closeness of their harmony tells a good story of all the years they have been together, both musically and as husband and wife. This is just GOOD, and I love the song! This same harmony is also the main asset in the old Boudeleaux Bryant hit “Devoted to You.” They could sing every song as a duet and that would suit me just fine!

The other “Peck” composition is a country blues tune called “Wondering,” that Debbe sings. A call and response solo between the guitar and the lap steel is perfect for this one. Debbe’s rhythm guitar is solid as a rock, and Steve lays down a bass line that puts the groove right in the pocket. Keep writing guys, I’m liking these a lot! Another fun addition is some “yester-year” radio sounding yodeling by Steve at the end of the song. Nice affect!

      The old Bill Clifton song “Little White-Washed Chimney,” gets a great rendition here with Steve singing lead on it. This is a super arrangement with all the masterful pickin’ and close harmony that it needs to be done right. This comes in a close second to ”Loving You,” and the band needs to think seriously about releasing both of these songs to radio as singles….if they haven’t done so already. There is no reason the whole world doesn’t get the chance to hear them! 

          “Matter of Time”, is an original tune written by Kathleen Pantaleo, from Harrisonburg, VA. It’s another really good bluesy tune that Debbe and Steve heard their old friend sing and knew they had to include it on this CD.  Lots of harmonies and a down home feel make for a scene that you would think is about the breakup of a relationship……. but, you would be wrong. Debbe let me in on the secret, the song is actually about a job that Kathleen could no longer tolerate. What a great set of lyrics that tell a very universal story, she sure had me fooled! To take a situation, expand on the story, and make it hit home with your everyday listener, is pure songwriting talent.  We need to hear more of Ms. Pantaleo’s work!!

          If you’re as big a fan as I am of OLD country music, you’ll love Steve’s version of the Ernest Tubb classic, “I Know My Baby Loves Me”.  Steve puts ALL his wit and vocal inflection into this one, and makes it his own. This tune was also covered by Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, aka Tim O’Brian and Hot Rize, but, in my humble opinion, Steve’s version is better than the originals! Listening to this rendition makes me want to make the trip east, just to see The FREE Rangers LIVE. It would also be worth the trip just to check out the inventory at STEVE PECK’S CRAFTSMAN, Steve’s shop where he restores and sells top quality vintage musical instruments. 

        The place that they most frequently entertain their Richmond area audience is Ashland Coffee and Tea, a premier listening room in Ashland, VA. Hopefully this review is coming out at the most opportune time of the year for you to add their CD to your music collection. If you want a hard copy, go to freerangersmusic.com, or you can pick up a Christmas download at CDBaby and Amazon.  This CD has been in my ol’ truck for many, many weeks now, so get your copy and you’ll find out why.  Merry Christmas to you all from HillBillyVille, Colorado!



Reviewed for Prescription Bluegrass by:    W.J. Halloek

© 2015   Prescription Bluegrass ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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