The Citizen Times
Published April 1, 2020 by Jason Gilmer
As work began on a collaborative recording project between The Steep Canyon Rangers and the Asheville Symphony Orchestra there was hope to include a guest vocalist on an old track by the band.
“Be Still Moses” appeared on the band’s 2007 album “Lovin’ Pretty Women,” and it’s a traditional bluegrass song with a Gospel feel.
The producer of the project, Michael Selverne, reached out to a couple of vocalists before the perfect answer popped into his head.
“I woke up one morning and said to my wife, ‘Boys II Men,’” Selverne recalled.
That’s the quick and easy response to how the legendary hip-hop vocal group came to perform on an album involving two local musical mainstays. It took a bit longer to make it all happen, though.
The collaborative record, which is named “Be Still Moses” and was released by Rounder Records on March 6, is something that makes sense to have occurred.
The band, which is made up of Michael Ashworth (vocals, percussion, guitar, mandolin), Michael Guggino (vocals, mandolin, mandola), Woody Platt (vocals, guitar), Nicky Sanders (fiddle, piano, vocals), Graham Sharp (vocals, banjo, guitar, harmonica) and Barrett Smith (bass), have worked with symphonies in the past.
Guggino said it first occurred as part of the band’s long-standing partnership with comedian and banjo player Steve Martin. The band members asked Jonathan Sacks, a composer and orchestrator who has worked on many blockbuster films including “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), Disney’s “Cars” (2006), and “Seabiscuit” (2003), to arrange some of their songs for orchestra. Sacks had worked with Martin on something similar.
The group has performed several shows across the country with orchestras, including a night of music with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra a few years ago.
“We were very selective about the songs,” Guggino said. “What we found that worked the best was a lot of the slower songs. They worked better with the symphony and really filled out the sound and there was a lot of space for the symphony. Some of our slower material really lends itself well to the orchestration.”
“Be Still Moses” includes many of the songs that Sacks arranged, including reworks of hits and rarities from the Grammy-winning band’s catalog, including a fresh take on “Radio,” the IBMA Song of The Year-nominated title track from the band’s 2015 No. 1 Bluegrass album.
“The Asheville Symphony wants to be a resource for the music industry. We live in a music town and as part of our responsibility as musicians is to collaborate, and working with the symphony orchestra is a rare and unique opportunity and it doesn’t happen as much these days, especially on recordings,” said the symphony’s executive director David Whitehill. “You combine orchestral music with good bluegrass and folk music and there’s a depth that it can bring, and you can hear these 11 songs in new ways.”
Selverne had worked with Steep Canyon Rangers and the symphony during another project, as he produced “The Asheville Symphony Sessions” in 2016, which included the groups’ recording of “Blue Velvet Rain.”
Selverne recorded Steep Canyon Rangers at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios first and then the symphony. He recorded the band as live as possible to get the feel of their concerts on the tracks.
“Having the Rangers go first and recording the way they did brought a lot of energy to our recording because you could hear how live they were,” Whitehill said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Months into the project’s process and Selverne still wanted to add another element to the mix. He thought about adding other musicians, maybe from New York or Nashville, but decided it wouldn’t fit right because of how well Steep Canyon Rangers meld their instruments and pass melody among themselves.
Then it dawned on him. Here’s how Selverne explained why Boys II Men was the perfect partner for “Be Still Moses”:
“My original thought wasn’t random. You’ve got these guys in the Rangers that, I think, are really underrated. I just don’t think people understand how gifted they are or evolved as a band. They move as a fluid unit and it’s remarkable.
“They are guys in their 40s who’ve been doing this for decades, and they are refined at what they do. Their vocal style is well executed and Woody has this sonorous baritone that is resonate, man, and cuts through everything. It’s magnificent.
“You think about that and then you go, Boy II Men are three guys who’ve been doing this for decades, are incredibly gifted, and known for the quality of their vocals. The track became a real bed for a Gospel track and that would be exactly the place where these men would meet in the middle if you’re lucky and you do this right. That’s exactly what happened.”
Selverne reached out to a friend who had worked with Boys II Men before. He asked for the group’s managers’ phone number and after a conversation sent the manager the tracks from the local recording session of the song.
After a while, vocal tracks from tenors Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman and baritone Nathan Morris trickled in. In all, Selverne said, he received almost 20 vocal tracks. He then mixed those tracks with the song’s other tracks to make the final song.
The band couldn’t really believe that it would be able to work with Boys II Men. “My middle school self was like, ‘really?’” Guggino said.
Though the recording took place in different states, the two groups finally performed it together at a Boys II Men concert at Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville and a live video was recorded.
So far the album has received more than 300,000 total plays on Spotify, Whitehill said, and has served as what he hoped it would.
“One of the things we thought we could do uniquely is to start documenting our region’s musical cultures to provide an archive that people could listen to, and not only today’s generation but future generations,” Whitehill said. “They will have access to this music and they’ll be able to hear how Asheville sounds and that is really unique. I don’t know of any other symphony in the country that is documenting its community’s music culture in the way we are.”