Lots of bluegrass songs are about the music’s old-time roots, steeped in evocative images of misty Appalachian hollers and such. On “Radio,” the title track to Steep Canyon Rangers’ fine new album, the Brevard-based band evokes roots, all right – but they have more to do with “American Top 40” than the “Grand Ole Opry.”
Lyrically invoking the Rolling Stones (“Dead Flowers”), the Kinks (“Waterloo Sunset”) and other vintage rock and pop acts, they recall the salad days of their youth over a strutting fiddle-driven arrangement.
Ridin’ home from Sunday school
Casey Kasem told me I’d find her one day
And I believed, I believed
Every word he said …
That begs the question: Has there ever before been a bluegrass song that dropped the name of the longtime host of the weekly top-40 countdown show?
“I seriously doubt it,” said Rangers banjo player and principle songwriter Graham Sharp, with a laugh. “But that was just such a big part of my musical memory growing up. Like it says in the song, there was something about coming home from Sunday school, sitting in the back seat and listening to the top-40 countdown. It was mid-to-late-’80s and for some reason, Night Ranger’s ‘Sister Christian’ is what stands out in my memory. Then you’d get home, turn on the radio, let it play and wait with your tape to hit ‘record’ when you heard a song you wanted – and the tape would squiggle in the first few seconds.
“That was music for us back then!”
The individual Rangers are all pushing 40 now, closing in on two decades as a band together after forming in the late 1990s at UNC-Chapel Hill. Early on, they got by on enthusiasm more than ability, playing in bars and restaurants around Chapel Hill. But recent years have found them playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people with Steve Martin while winning various IBMA Awards and a best-bluegrass-album Grammy. They’ll be center-stage during next weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass, billed just below Alison Krauss on Friday night at Red Hat Amphitheater.
By now, the Rangers are among the nation’s elite bluegrass acts, as skilled and polished a group of musicians as you’ll see anywhere. Nevertheless, the different and varied music they all grew up with before discovering bluegrass in college is never entirely absent.
Onstage, fiddler Nicky Sanders’ dervish-like solos juxtapose everything from War’s “Cisco Kid” to Danny Elfman’s theme to “The Simpsons” with “Orange Blossom Special.” Mike Guggino brings a touch of old-world classical to his mandolin-playing, juxtaposed with frontman Woody Platt’s heartland everyman voice. And in the group’s current live set, the closing “Radio” track “Monumental Fool” ends with a second-line drumbeat in which everybody turns percussive.
The Rangers have grown far more rhythmic on their last few albums and at least some of the credit for that goes to the band’s newest member, drummer/percussionist Mike Ashworth.
“Bluegrass is at its best when it’s a balancing act,” said Sharp. “You hear something this moment, it goes away; then you hear this, that, something else. That’s what we work on trying to do with the drums, which gives a lot of flexibility as far as what we can do with songs, the grooves they have, where they can go.
“We’ve always been a little different from the standard bluegrass band,” he added. “Early on in our history, we tried for a long time to sound like the Lonesome River Band or IIIrd Tyme Out – and we just couldn’t do it. We had our own thing, and we had to run with it. So everything’s been an extension of that.”
All about Steve
Following their own path has certainly worked well for the Rangers over the years, especially their ongoing partnership with Martin. They first crossed paths back in 2006, not long after the Rangers had won the IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year, meeting through mutual friends while the comedian/banjoist was vacationing in North Carolina.
Martin and the Rangers have made two albums together, most recently 2013’s “Love Has Come For You” with Edie Brickell. They’re also on the Birthplace of Country Music tribute album “Orthophonic Joy,” doing the old Tenneva Ramblers’ Bristol Sessions number “Sweet Heaven When I Die.” Working with Martin has been educational, especially the contrast between his onstage and offstage personas.
“He’s super matter-of-fact in real life,” Sharp said. “We’d known him for a while, hanging out and practicing, and he was super-friendly but not trying to be ‘funny’ – even though he could be hilarious. But the first time we went onstage with him, it was like he flipped a switch and became ‘That Guy.’ It was kind of unbelievable. To his credit, Steve doesn’t want to be that guy offstage, and he’s one reserved dude. He does play off the persona, but he doesn’t want to use old jokes or bits. Kudos for that.”
If you go
Who: Wide Open Bluegrass with Steep Canyon Rangers, Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Balsam Range, Gibson Brothers, Claire Lynch Band, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, “Orthophonic Joy” and Blue Highway
When: Starting at noon Friday, Steep Canyon Rangers play about 7:45 p.m.
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, 500 S. McDowell St., Raleigh
Cost: The show is sold out.