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 its own. The group’s fame has spread since 2009 when it began collaborating with actor and banjo player Steve Martin, and the 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 band won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass album for its solo work, Nobody Knows You.
The Steep Canyon Rangers, consisting of Graham Sharp on banjo and vocals; Mike Guggino on mandolin/mandola and vocals; Nicky Sanders on fiddle and vocals; Mike Ashworth on drum and vocals; Barrett Smith on bass, guitar, and vocals; and Aaron Burdett on guitar and vocals, has made its mark since Martin introduced them to a wider audience. 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 Steep Canyon Ranger’s set at MerleFest, which included a deep dive into the rich history of the music of the region and its home state. That performance became the Grammy-nominated 2020 album, North Carolina Songfest, featuring a selection of songs by North Carolina songwriters, including Ola Belle Reed, Doc Watson, James Taylor, and Ben E. King.
In 2019, Steep Canyon Rangers re-signed with Yep Roc Records, who released North Carolina Songfest and two other 2020 works. For the group, it was a homecoming. “The Yep Roc family was among the first to welcome Steep Canyon Rangers when we were just pups,” Graham Sharp said. “As we’ve grown, so have they. We’re incredibly excited for the future and the music it holds.”
The future held two distinctive albums. Be Still Moses, perhaps the group’s most singular musical partnership, had 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 included re-imagined versions of Steep Canyon’s previously released original songs performed with an orchestra. The band’s most recent release of all original music, Arm in Arm, came out in October 2020. Of that album, No Depression magazine, the journal of roots music said, “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 its 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.
The process allowed the group to record the album completely live and very quickly, tracking a dozen songs in 3 ½ 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.”
That pretty well sums up Steep Canyon Rangers, too.