The Steep Canyon Rangers: Evolution of a Band
The Steep Canyon Rangers have established themselves as one of the premier bluegrass bands in the nation while forging into realms — and venues — that could not even be imagined in 1945 when bluegrass emerged on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Bill Monroe formed his country music into a recognizable genre that became bluegrass with the core duo of Earl Scruggs on banjo and Lester Flatt on guitar. Founded in 2000 by University of North Carolina buddies Woody Platt on guitar, Graham Sharp on banjo, and Charles R. Humphrey III on bass, the group was soon joined by mandolinist Mike Guggino. The Steeps have made few changes in personnel while continuing to improve themselves throughout the ensuing 15 years. Joined by Californian and Berklee College of Music fiddler Nicky Sanders in 2004 and percussionist Mike Ashworth in 2013, the band has achieved widespread success through their touring — both on their own and as the backup band for multitalented actor/banjoist/comedian Steve Martin. Now on tour with Martin and comedian Martin Short, the story and the music of the Steep Canyon Rangers continue to evolve.
While the two videos that follow only date back half a decade or so, they are representative of the early sound of the Steeps. While “Feelin a Little Like Dale,” written by Graham Sharp, has pretty much dropped out of their repertoire, they still play “Call the Captain” from their 2007 release Lovin’ Pretty Women.
According to David Menconi, music writer for Raleigh, North Carolina’s News & Observer, the band selected their name while heading for an early gig in the vicinity of the UNC in Chapel Hill, after a brand of beer – Steep Canyon Stout.
Menconi quotes Mike Guggino saying “Woody says this and it’s true, when you start a bluegrass band about the last thing you imagine is winning a Grammy Award,” says Guggino. “Especially a band like us, college friends who started a bar band. At some point, we started taking it seriously – like when we all got out of college and realized this was what we were gonna do. But it’s funny now to look back on how terrible we were at the start.”
In 2006, the group was named IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year. In the ensuing three or four years, they continued to be nominated for awards as they worked hard and toured incessantly. And then lightning struck!
Besides being the lead guitar player and singer for the Steep Canyon Rangers, Woody, who lives near Asheville in Brevard, North Carolina, is an accomplished fly fisherman and fishing guide in the area with Headquarters Outfitters in Brevard, where he spends his time when he’s not touring with the Steeps.
The story goes that Woody met Steve Martin, a fisherman himself, as his guide. Martin, who has played the banjo since he was a teenager, is known to be a very accomplished amateur banjoist and has carried the instrument onstage as part of his comic signature. The two men became friends, and then Martin asked the Steeps to accompany him on tour as his backup band. Along the way, Martin worked with their look, calling in a designer to teach them how to dress for his internationally acclaimed act. He also made sure to feature their group in his shows, letting them have the floor when he took a break from the stage. The association led to the band winning the IBMA Entertainers of the Year with Steve Martin in 2011 as well as a Grammy nomination for their collaborative album, Rare Bird Alert. In 2012, the Steeps won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for their own Nobody Knows You album (without Martin).
This year, the Steeps will be touring with Steve Martin and comedian Martin Short to venues in Canada, the West Coast, Florida, and more. In addition, they will be touring widely at many bluegrass festivals on their own.
The Steep Canyon Rangers, however, have continued to evolve and develop as a band, never settling for riding on their reputation or the clear boost that their association with Steve Martin has given them. Technology has freed them from the traditional line-across-the-stage positioning that’s been adopted by bluegrass bands from the beginning as their acoustic instruments required amplification to allow them to be heard. The Steeps move freely around the stage, allowing, for instance, Mike Guggino on mandolin and Graham Sharp on banjo to face each other for call and response jams on a theme. Meanwhile, Nicky Sanders, on fiddle, is freed to become a virtuosic whirling dervish on the stage, animated and lively. After years of performing the hoary and still very popular “Orange Blossom Special,” Sanders, along with Steve Martin, has composed “Auden’s Train,” inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name.
Another evolution in the band’s career has been their addition of Michael Ashworth as percussionist, breaking a bluegrass shibboleth against the use of drums in a bluegrass band, despite the fact that many of the pioneers of the form included drums in performance and even more in recording. It’s also true, that, while not heard on recordings, almost all bands work to a click track in their ears, which guarantees their adherence to perfect timing, a function performed by the drum.
Ashworth plays an acoustic percussion array called cajon box kit and is a well known multi-instrumentalist and session player who also sings and sometimes plays guitar in Steeps shows. His good taste and thoughtful percussion contribute significantly to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ continually emerging vibe.
(My own theory on the prohibition of drums in bluegrass is that during the early days there wasn’t sufficient room in the car for a drum kit. Even the bass often rode lashed to the roof. The ever inventive Monroe turned a liability into an asset, creating a rhythm section using the instruments, space, and technology available to him.)
Bluegrass — and indeed music in general — is not a zero sum game. There’s always space for more. It is additive, with each change and variation leading to new, sometimes interesting, sometimes failing, changes that offer unique interpretations and an increased variety of opportunities. Evolving technology, taste, audience, demographics, distribution, and more will continue to shape bluegrass and all styles of music.
Many bluegrass aficionados claim that bluegrass must remain within the “template” introduced by Bill Monroe, featuring the banjo played in the syncopated style that matured through the brilliance of Earl Scruggs. It is, for sure, essential that bluegrass continue to remember, and celebrate, its founders. And bands can earn a second hearing from fans by playing some more traditional bluegrass tunes.
One element seemingly lost, in the plethora of country music awards shows, is continuing recognition of the pioneers of that music. Nevertheless, the Steep Canyon Rangers stand out as representative of bluegrass bands that push the genre forward, strive to advance the music, and maintain contact with that from which they came. Remember, there’s plenty of room for wide variation under the rubric of bluegrass music.
The Steep Canyon Rangers host their own festival each year in Brevard, North Carolina, to benefit the local Boys and Girls Clubs. Coming up this year, their Mountain Song Festival is scheduled for September 9 – 11, 2016. And of course they will be performing at many festivals through the bluegrass festival season that is just getting under way.