Bluegrass Raleigh

Steep Canyon Rangers: From Chapel Hill college band to the top of the bluegrass world

Steep Canyon Rangers.
Steep Canyon Rangers. Courtesy of Steep Canyon Rangers

All you have to do to trace Steep Canyon Rangers’ recent rise is to look at the shelf above mandolinist Mike Guggino’s fireplace. At one end, you’ll find the “Emerging Artist” award they won from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2006. On the other, there’s the 2011 IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” trophy the Rangers shared with frequent performing partner Steve Martin. And in the middle is the best-bluegrass-album Grammy they won all by themselves back in February for 2012’s “Nobody Knows You.”

When the IBMA’s “World of Bluegrass” convention opens in Raleigh this week for the first time, the Rangers will be busy. Their itinerary includes hosting Thursday night’s awards show, passing out trophies and quips; and closing things down with a Saturday night show at Red Hat Amphitheater backing up Martin and Edie Brickell. From the sound of the Rangers’ just-released new album, “Tell The Ones I Love” (Rounder Records), Guggino will be adding to his trophy shelf next year.

“It feels like if there’s a right time for us to host the IBMA, it’s this year,” Guggino says. “We’re honored they asked, glad to do it and we’ll take it very seriously.”

If the Rangers are on top of the bluegrass world right now, that didn’t happen overnight. The band formed in the late 1990s at UNC-Chapel Hill, with members deciding on their name (from a beer brand, Steep Canyon Stout) while on the way to their first gig.

“Somebody actually taped that first show,” says banjo player Graham Sharp. “We were playing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ and on the tape you can hear someone yelling the chords out to the rest of the band. That’s how green we were. We knew maybe six songs, and barely knew those.”

A decade and a half of hard work later, the Rangers are one of the most accomplished and polished live acts in bluegrass. Amy Reitnouer, an alumnus of Elon University, is executive editor of California-based The Bluegrass Situation. Before graduating from Elon in 2009, Reitnouer used to see the Rangers playing at The Cave in Chapel Hill. But last month, she saw them play with Martin at Los Angeles’ 17,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl.

“To see them go from The Cave to that is pretty remarkable,” says Reitnouer. “Yes, a lot of that is due to Steve (Martin) – but not all of it. He was a catalyst to get them onto larger stages. But if they didn’t have the chops to hold their own there, they would not have gotten as far as they have. They’re the perfect balance of showmanship and musicianship.”

From rock to bluegrass

Steep Canyon Rangers’ nucleus came together in Chapel Hill when Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and bassist Charles R. Humphrey III all got interested in bluegrass around the same time. Guggino was at UNC-Asheville and entered the fold because he and Platt had grown up together in Brevard. Like his bandmates, Guggino grew up on rock ‘n’ roll but discovered bluegrass through friends at college.

“During parties, they were always picking in the living room and it looked like fun,” Guggino says. “The more I listened to bluegrass, mandolin was most appealing. So I bought one the same summer Woody came home from college and told me about his bluegrass band. That’s when it started.”

Several other players came and went before California native Nicky Sanders (the Rangers’ sole non-North Carolinian) joined as fiddler, solidifying the quintet. By the time everyone was out of college, they had resolved to continue the band. In the ensuing years, they played every gig they could while living together in Asheville and woodshedding.

“We were fortunate that the band got started when we were all at places in our lives where we could live on a shoestring,” says Sharp. “What worked for us, which wasn’t intentional but has been our secret, was to have a group that works well together and has diverse talents – not just playing and singing and writing but also day-to-day business stuff, management, merchandise. Everybody works on different things.”

The Rangers had just won their “Emerging Artist” calling card from IBMA when they met Martin via mutual friends, while he was vacationing in North Carolina. A series of informal jam sessions led to the Rangers backing Martin up on the road and an excellent collaborative album, 2011’s Grammy-nominated “Rare Bird Alert.” After years onstage together, the Rangers make the perfect deadpan foil for Martin’s between-song comedy routines.

“The great thing about the Rangers and comedy is that they don’t try to become comedians,” says Martin. “They keep their own personalities, which is part of the charm of what goes on onstage with them.”

‘Proud parent’ Martin

Various Rangers also contributed to Martin’s new album with Brickell, “Love Has Come For You” (Rounder Records), and they’ve played together everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the White House. Martin has become the Rangers’ biggest fan and was almost more excited than they were about their Grammy win.

“We stayed at Steve’s house in L.A. during the Grammys, and he and his wife were like proud parents,” Guggino says. “They stayed up and had a drink with us to celebrate after we came home.”

Bluegrass Situation editor Reitnouer calls the Rangers’ new album “one of this year’s most exciting albums for bluegrass,” and her enthusiasm is justified. With drums or percussion on two-thirds of its 12 tracks, “Tell The Ones I Love” is as rhythmic and drum-heavy as bluegrass gets.

Part of that came from their recording venue, the fabled “Midnight Ramble” studio owned by the late Levon Helm (singer/drummer of The Band) in Woodstock, New York. The more percussive approach is especially evident on the slippery grooves of “Camellia,” which sounds like a long lost cousin of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” and the walking-bassline strut of “Stand and Deliver.”

“A lot of bluegrass records can sound squeaky clean, but we wanted a rawer sound,” says Guggino. “A lot of this was us standing in a circle playing live with a fire crackling in the background.”

The Rangers have been touring with a drummer, but they’ll adhere to bluegrass orthodoxy and play IBMA drum-free. That’s a small price to pay for the communal feeling of belonging to the bluegrass community, which is a connection the Rangers worked hard to make.

“We’ve been very lucky,” says Sharp. “For a few years there, we were learning how to play bluegrass on campus in Chapel Hill, and it seemed like nobody else within a hundred miles was playing it. Suddenly we opened our eyes and realized North Carolina is one of the hottest hotbeds of traditional music anywhere. Getting to feel like we’re part of that community has been something special.”

Meanwhile, beyond bluegrass, it’s hard to imagine how things could be going much better for the Rangers.

“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.”