Steep Canyon Rangers – Asheville cats
Though the Steep Canyon Rangers earned the coveted IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award in September 2006, the fact is that they’d been emerging — albeit very slowly — for nearly a decade.
Banjo player Graham Sharp met Woody Platt (guitar and lead vocals) and Charles Humphrey III (bass) at the University of North Carolina in 1997. Mandolinist Mike Guggino was Platt’s childhood friend from Brevard, North Carolina. They were hardly a bluegrass band in the beginning: Platt was just learning guitar, Guggino was playing jazz, and Sharp, who had played a bit of saxophone in high school, didn’t even own a banjo.
What, then, motivated them to become a bluegrass band? Sharp just laughs, still perplexed, it seems, by the impetus behind the Rangers’ formation. Chalking it up to “strange coincidence,” he recalls taking up the banjo after a knee injury sidelined him from the soccer field. Humphrey borrowed an acoustic bass from UNC’s music department. Once they began attending festival and live performances, they were impressed by the warmth and accessibility characteristic of many bluegrass artists.
From this fuzzy beginning evolved a band, then a recording. Curtis Burch produced their first album, Old Dreams & New Dreams, which they released independently in 2001. Mr. Taylor’s New Home followed in 2002. Lovin’ Pretty Women, released August 14, is the Rangers’ fifth disc overall and third for Rebel Records. Listening to the albums sequentially, it’s evident how far the band has come in a relatively short period of time.
Sharp is quite conscious of their learning curve. “Pretty much all of our records except for One Dime At A Time  are pretty painful for me to listen to right now,” he says. “We were learning, you know. When we made our first record for Rebel, we’d been playing bluegrass for five years. That’s not a long time to try to enter at the top of the game.”
The Rangers are still in the process of maturing, but each successive album has stood head and shoulders above their previous efforts. The recent addition of Nicky Sanders on fiddle has solidified the band and fleshed out their sound. Lizzie Hamilton played fiddle on the Rangers’ first two records; then they went through a brief spell without a regular fiddler. Sanders has made the Rangers a more cohesive unit, as well as offering them a fresh perspective: A classically trained violinist, he brings an inventive approach to the instrument, and a great deal of musical expertise.
“He’s kind of a foil for rest of us North Carolina southern boys,” Sharp says. “He’s an eccentric, Vermont-born, California-raised, crazy fiddle player. He’s got so much personality, and it really shines through when he plays the fiddle.”
The other Rangers, though they may have considerably less formal training, have certainly done their fair share of woodshedding. Sharp plays a spunky, driving banjo. Guggino’s jazz sensibilities are still evident in his mandolin playing, though he has the tasteful restraint not to steer the tunes off course. Platt is a solid rhythm player capable of bluesy runs and fills; Humphrey plays bass with an enthusiasm reminiscent of former Del McCoury Band bassist Mike Bub.
It was Bub, in fact, who produced One Dime At A Time in 2005. Ronnie Bowman, former frontman for the Lonesome River Band, produced the new disc. Sharp speaks highly of their working relationship with Bowman.
“He was an unbelievable inspiration,” Sharp says. “We all realized that he was at the top of his game. We thought, ‘If he’s going to put in sixteen-hour days on this record, then I guess that’s what we should be doing, too.’ That was really good for us.”
To Bowman’s credit, Lovin’ Pretty Women still sounds like a Steep Canyon Rangers record. A handful of producers working in bluegrass and acoustic music today routinely put such a powerful stamp on a project that the end result is more easily recognizable for their production work than for the artist’s performance. Bowman’s contributions are much more subtle.
Another key player on the Rangers’ bench is their manager, Don Light, who has worked with such high-profile artists as Jimmy Buffett and the Oak Ridge Boys. A chance meeting at the Graves Mountain festival piqued Light’s interest. “We were backstage playing under a little picnic shed,” Sharp recalls, “and he came over and sat down on a picnic table and listened to us. Afterward, he said he thought he could help us, and we didn’t have a manager at that point. We had no clue who he was at that time. We were just like, ‘OK, sounds great. We’ll talk to you later.’ But he’s been huge for us.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers seem to have carved out their own little niche among young bluegrass bands. Few acts currently have their eye on tradition as the Rangers do. King Wilkie’s fine new album owes more to Gram Parsons than Bill Monroe. The Infamous Stringdusters are an edgy, improvisational band. Mountain Heart seems to be exploring new territory. Perhaps their most like-minded peers were the recently disbanded Open Road.
Ultimately, it may be the Rangers’ willingness to look back while looking forward that truly sets them apart. “We have to keep in mind who our audience is,” Sharp says. “We go out there and play 80 bluegrass festivals a year. So we know who we’re going to be playing for.”
The use of only two stage microphones gives a choreographic feel to the Rangers’ live performances, though the visual spectacle of instruments and vocalists weaving in and out is not without its occasional hazards. “Every once in a while someone will get hit in the face with my banjo stock,” Sharp admits. “Other than that, things usually go pretty cleanly.”
The Rangers also present themselves in stylish suits, another indication of their respect for tradition. Indeed, the band’s appeal reaches beyond younger audiences to the old guard of bluegrass music.
The Rangers’ relationship with Rebel has also played a key role in the band’s emergence. “They’ve been unbelievable,” Sharp says. “They’ve given us, more or less, total freedom. They’ve shown a lot of faith in us from day one. Hopefully they feel like that’s been rewarded with this album.”
One especially striking feature of this (and every other) Rangers album is the amount of original material they’ve included. Each record typically includes two or three obscure covers, with the remainder of the material coming from the band itself. Sharp has emerged as the group’s principal lyricist; Platt and Humphrey occasionally contribute songs, while Guggino has written several instrumentals.
Sharp points out that songwriting was central to most first-generation bluegrass acts. “All the great early bands get a lot of attention for the way they picked and sang, but a huge part of them was their songs,” he notes. “Bill Monroe had a huge catalogue of tunes that really defined his career. The same for the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin. I think that’s a really important part of the history of bluegrass.”
Influenced by artists such as Larry Sparks and Del McCoury, the Steep Canyon Rangers seem drawn toward more adventuresome material that stretches the boundaries of bluegrass. “The best way to characterize our music is just to say it’s song-based,” Sharp suggests. “We’ll just play it based on what the song demands, rather than having a specific way of doing things and trying to pigeonhole it. We’re willing to try about anything.”
Holding to that philosophy is one thing; executing it well is another. The Rangers’ writing is noticeably stronger on this record than on previous efforts. “Call The Captain” is just far enough outside the mainstream to catch your attention. Built around tight harmonies and minor chords, it tells the story of a miner’s decision to stop wasting his body and his land mining coal. “I’m not gonna choose between my heart and my soul,” Platt sings.
Another track that challenges the traditional bluegrass form is “Be Still Moses”, a gospel number that builds to an impressive, wailing chorus of African-American harmonies.
Co-writing was a new experience for Sharp on this record. “Ramblin’ Man”, written with Mark Collie, was his first pairing with an experienced Music Row songwriter. Sharp recalls that the first lines came quickly — “A steel wheel rides a steel rail, and a rubber wheel rides the road/The ground underneath my boot heels burns right through my soul” — and Collie’s talents helped the other pieces fall effortlessly in place.
“Pickin’ On Josh”, credited to Sharp and Tut Taylor and featuring Randy Kohrs on dobro, was a slightly more complicated co-write. Taylor included an instrumental salute to Josh Graves on his Friar Tut album in 1972, and Sharp recently added lyrics with Taylor’s blessing.
The Steep Canyon Rangers seem to have the right perspective to guide their own future clearly. They realize there’s still room for improvement; they have the good sense to look to the right sources for inspiration; and they possess the talent and artistic drive to push the envelope just a bit.
If their “emergence” took many years, time now seems to be moving at a brisk pace for the Steep Canyon Rangers. Sharp is optimistic that they can parlay their recent progress into a solid future within the bluegrass community.
“We met with some success early on as a band, but we were all really green as musicians at that point,” he acknowledges. “We expected it to take some time before we made a splash, and it seems like everything sort of came together at once last year. That being said, I think we still have a long way to go. We still have a lot of learning and a lot of growing to do.”