When the Steep Canyon Rangers started playing together, they had no intention of becoming a band, much less professional musicians. Banjo player and singer Graham Sharp met guitarist Woody Platt while both were students at the University of North Carolina. Their acoustic jam sessions attracted mandolin picker Mike Guggino, and soon led to regular gigs. That was 20 years, 13 albums, a few personnel changes, and one Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album (2013’s Nobody Knows You) ago.
The Rangers’ innovative blend of bluegrass, country, rockabilly, rock, and folk won them a wide range of fans, including comedian and banjo player Steve Martin, who hired them to be his back up band in 2009. “Steve’s audience is exponentially larger than any band in traditional music,” Graham Sharp said, from his home in Asheville, NC. “He put banjo and bluegrass in front of a lot more people and helped us gain a larger profile. We wrote a few songs with him, but his personality is so ingrained in them, that we usually reserve them for the gigs we do with him.”
The band has always been prolific; even more so this year. They’ve released three albums since January – The North Carolina Songbook, recorded live at last year’s MerleFest; Be Still Moses, a collection of original songs, featuring the Asheville Symphony and backing harmonies by R&B stars Boys II Men; and Arm in Arm, a new studio recording of original songs. It’s also the first album the band produced on its own.
“We have a strong sense of our identity and strengths, and drew a lot from the lessons learned from the producers of our past albums,” Sharp said. “The last studio album we did, Out in the Open, was cut 100% live. We learned a lot from that. It increased our confidence and taught us that there are things computers can’t always duplicate. We cut most of it live, one take or ten takes, whatever it took. The studio (Southern Ground in Nashville) had a lot of great instruments available, so if we wanted a bit of organ or electric guitar, we could build that into the songs.”
Sharp said the production and arranging duties were evenly divided among the band members. “Barrett (Smith, stand up bass) and Nicky (Sanders, fiddle) are great at arrangements and incorporating the arranging ideas the rest of us have. Mike (Ashworth, drummer) is fantastic at studio technique and approaches to recording, so producing ourselves brought everyone’s different strengths to bear in the studio. Our co-producer, Brandon Bell (John Prine, Zac Brown) engineered our Nobody Knows You album. We loved his style and the way he heard the band and made us sound, so we sought him out to engineer and co-produce.”
They cut Arm to Arm in two three-or-four-day sessions, in December of 2019 and January of 2020. “When we were down there recording, we did another performance at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Center with Boys II Men. Michael Bearden, who conducted and arranged the Be Still Moses session, came by the studio with the producer Michael Selverne. Michael’s produced Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga. He’s a great piano player, so we talked him into playing with us. Brandon stuck some mics on the piano and then we all went to our chairs and started playing and riffing on Take My Mind, a tune we were thinking about recording, and it became a total jam session. It was a once in a lifetime thing to sit down and just have at it. It turned into the live take of the song that’s on the album. Oliver Wood (from the Wood Brothers) came into the studio later and overdubbed some slide guitar and vocals.”
Arm in Arm showcases the band’,s rock, pop, country and jazz influences more than previous albums. There’s even a bit of electric guitar shredding. Does the band get any flak from bluegrass purists?
“There are plenty of bands out there playing ‘real’ bluegrass,” Sharp said. “Nobody’s giving us a hard time about our music. You like it or you don’t. I don’t think anyone’s worrying about any band destroying bluegrass. Country songs like Bullet in the Fire have a bit of that Waylon stomp in them, but we like that late ’50s, early ’60s country sound. The freeform instrumental jams took shape in the moment. That’s just another aspect of our style that we show off – sometimes we like to keep the solos focused, sometime we let ourselves go. It’s good to keep the band, and the audience, on edge a little bit. We like to let everyone be surprised now and then.”
Have they ever discussed going in a more electric, amplified direction?
“We have talked about it,” Sharp said, “but we like to use the electric instruments as a way to change things up, here and there. We all love the sound of acoustic bluegrass instruments, and you can only get away from ’em for so long. I don’t think a full electric thing is in the cards for us.”