Steep Canyon Rangers
It’s bluegrass as you haven’t heard it before. Since a group of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started Steep Canyon Rangers in 2000, the group has been expanding and redefining the parameters of bluegrass. The genre-defying band has brought elements of pop, country folk and folk rock to music that is very much their own. Their fame has spread since 2009, when they began collaborating with actor and banjo player Steve Martin, and their 2012 album with Martin, Rare Bird Alert, featuring guest appearances by Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks, was nominated for a Grammy. In 2013, the group won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass album for their solo work, Nobody Knows You.
The band consists of Woody Platt on acoustic guitar and lead vocals; Graham Sharp on banjo and harmony vocals; Mike Guggino on mandolin and harmony vocals; Nicky Sanders on fiddle and vocals; Mike Ashworth on box kit, cajón and vocals; and Barrett Smith on upright bass. They began performing in festivals and recording. On July 4, 2011, Steep Canyon Rangers joined with Steve Martin for “A Capitol Fourth” on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. That same year, the group and Martin were jointly named Entertainers of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. In 2017, the group and Martin, with Edie Brickell, recorded The Long Awaited Album and joined Martin and Brickell on tour. In April, 2019, Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina was on hand for their set at MerleFest, North Carolina Songbook, a deep dive into the rich history of the music of the region and their home state.
In addition to North Carolina Songbook, released in 2020 and nominated for a Grammy, Steep Canyon Rangers released two additional albums in 2020. Be Still Moses, perhaps their most singular musical partnership, has the band teaming with Philadelphia soul legends Boys II Men and their hometown Asheville Symphony to overhaul completely the Rangers’ original “Be Still Moses,” which they recorded in 2007 on their breakout album Lovin’ Pretty Women. The album includes re-imagined versions of Steep Canyon’s previously released original songs performed with an orchestra. Their most recent release of all original music, Arm in Arm, came out in October. Of that album, No Depression magazine, the journal of roots music, said that “Every song captures the North Carolina group’s innovative spirit, weaving in jazz, gospel, folk and even rock phrases. Creating an intimate and intricate sound that challenges, cajoles and comforts.”
A hallmark of Steep Canyon Rangers has been their ability to produce two distinct bodies of work, with Martin and on their own. They tour 150 dates a year and are considered one of the hardest working bands around. They have worked with a wide range of producers who have brought something new to the table each time the group steps into a studio. In 2017, they arrived at Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville, N.C., a facility owned by Mitch Easter, producer for R.E.M, among others. They were surprised to discover the plans their producer, three-time Grammy-winner Joe Henry, had for them. They were going to record “Out in the Open” in classic fashion, with all six members singing and playing in a room with no overdubs. In an interview, Platt admitted that they were nervous. “We’ve recorded in a circle before, but with baffles and other ways to isolate yourself,” he said. “This record, if I stepped six inches to my left, I’d bump into the mandolin player. Six inches to my right, I’m bumping into the banjo player. Our microphones were all over each other. If you turned over my vocal mic, I was in 12 others. There really was no way to fix anything, just like our live show.”
The process allowed the group to record the album completely live and very quickly, tracking a dozen songs in 3.5 days. Tracks were jammed, rehearsed, played and recorded with no time wasted. “There’s no sleight of hand,” Graham Sharp said. “It may not be straightforward, but it’s honest.” “What you lose in perfection, you gain in energy and authenticity,” Platt added.
That pretty well sums up Steep Canyon Rangers, too.