Steep Canyon Rangers to Fly Solo at Merlefest
Steep Canyon Rangers, the band who backed Steve Martin in 2010 as the Merlefest headliners will play on the Watson Stage this Friday by themselves as one of the festival’s knee deep chart of premier performers before heading off to California to play three shows with Steve Martin including a set on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Their ability to create tight vocal harmony with a large spectrum of voices coupled with clean picking across the board and a bank full of beautiful ballads undoubtedly brings one the best traditional bluegrass bands back to Merlefest.
The Steep Canyon Rangers and Steve Martin have been playing together on stage since 2009 when they were featured on A Prairie Home Companion. Since then they have paired up and created the album “Rare Bird Alert” that topped the Billboard Bluegrass chart and they also won the prestigious International Bluegrass Music Association award for Entertainers of the Year in 2011.
FR: You guys met in Chapel Hill, correct? What were you studying?
SCR: Yeah, we started the band in 1999 in Chapel Hill. Graham, our banjo player, was a Comparative Literature major. Charles, our bass player, was International Studies and I was Environmental Studies.
FR: So how did you get involved with music?
SCR: We were good friends for years, I knew Graham and Charles since we were freshmen. We were all really into music[…]At one point Graham bought a banjo and Charles bought an upright bass and got really focused on that. It didn’t really start as bluegrass but we had bluegrass instruments so it naturally led us in that direction. We started with the more progressive bluegrass like Sam Bush and we worked our way back to the more traditional stuff.
FR: Steep Canyon Rangers are pegged as being from Brevard, North Carolina.
SCR: Yeah, some people say Asheville, some people say Brevard. Some people even say Chapel Hill. We moved around but the band was actually started in Chapel Hill.
FR: You’ve had the opportunity to spend lots of time with Steve Martin. Has he been a mentor to you in some ways?
SCR: Absolutely. He has mastered the art of entertainment, whether it’s with a banjo, a comedy show, or acting; He knows how to entertain people. You can learn a lot from him. It’s been great for our band, not only what we’ve learned but the benefit we’ve had being well exposed with him.
FR: You guys signed with Rounder Records. They have a history of some highly talented musicians: John Hartford, The Grasscals, Del McCoury, Etta Baker and also Doc Watson. How did Rounder approach you, or did you approach them?
SCR: We had been on Rebel Records for several years and had some records with them that were very successful. I think Rounder Records waits until artists reach a certain level before they start working with you. We became friends with Ken Irwin, who is one of the founders of Rounder Records, who is a major bluegrass fan. Rounder Records helped push us to the next level in our careers.
FR: Rounder Records also has Doc Watson as an artist. What impact has Doc had on your career as a musician?
SCR: One of the first CD’s I listened to in the bluegrass genre was a record called “Remembering Merle“. My mom introduced me to that record in early high school. Some of the songs on that record were the first I tried to learn or guitar. Doc has had a major influence on my career and is one of the main reasons I’m doing what I’m doing.
FR: What other bands are you going to try to see at Merlefest this year?
SCR: It’s kind of a shame we won’t have much downtime this year. We are touring with Steve Martin so we have a very busy schedule. We will be playing a show out in California next. When we played Merlefest in years past we would just stay on the campground all four days and go to tons of shows at the festival.
FR: Do you have a favorite Merlefest memory?
SCR: There are several memories I have from years past. I remember seeing Peter Rowan in the Walker Center when I was first getting into bluegrass music. I also remember camping out by the Hillside Stage watching the shows and being in awe of the different performers and dreaming of being able to play. But the main thrill was playing on the Watson stage with Steve Martin. The crowd was enormous and we were so honored to be there with Steve.
FR: You’re a big trout fisherman. Do you still get a chance to fish?
SCR: I do. It’s important to me, so when I’m home I like the climb a little trout stream somewhere. Something about being in the water lets me shut my brain down and not have any worries.
FR: Tell us about your album “Nobody Knows You“.
SCR: It’s got a maturity to it. It really features the great songwriters we have in our band. It’s all originals except for one tune and we are really proud of it.
FR: Is there a song on the album that particularly resonates with you?
SCR: I like the song “Natural Disaster” which is more of a ballad. It’s real fresh and has a modern approach.
The Steep Canyon Rangers will be at Merlefest on the Watson stage on 4/27 at 3:30pm playing select tunes from their new album “Nobody Knows You,” available now.