Graham Sharp. Last name fits. Absolutely nothing dull about this guy. Sharp as a tack, in fact. He rips banjo rolls, belts out bold baritone, and plays the harmonica with hurricane force, sometimes all on the same song! He is the banjo player with whom the awarder of the Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, himself, chooses to play. Yup, razor sharp, indeed.
And, just listen to those lyrics! Captivating, intelligent, spot-on. Graham has penned some of the hippest songs in modern bluegrass. His words are born from days of yore, current events, novels read, and an incisive mind. When inspiration strikes, Graham writes. He makes a point to catch it — even in his sleep. Struck one middle of the night, Graham authored the entire timely call to action, Stand and Deliver the next day.
Graham Sharp has been standing and delivering as the banjoist for the Steep Canyon Rangers since the Rangers corralled together in college. He is the perfect fit with his fellow uber-talented Ranger brethren, who together lean over the cutting edge of bluegrass and burn their furnace white-hot. The Steeps have awards galore under their belts, Grammy, IBMA, band contest, you name it, and a recent induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame! They have an enormous following for their sizzling shows and catalog of off-the-chart tunes, and their collaboration with Steve Martin has them entertaining the nation via the likes of The Today Show, Colbert, and the Capitol Lawn.
The Steep Canyon Rangers are certainly the first-responders we want coming to our rescue when we find ourselves in peril: peril of forgetting how wonderful the world is, peril of overlooking how magical music can be, any peril. The Rangers will save us. They leap into that canyon with haste and call to us. We cannot help but run to them: a firm beacon of valor and truth. Before they take us to a safe place, however, they hold us by the napes of our necks and dangle us over the edge of that canyon, and ply us with masterful picking, magnificent melodies and meaningful messages. The Rangers rock us in their bosoms and blow our peril away. They revitalize us and securely set us back on our feet with a new perspective filled with marvel and gratitude.
Thank goodness, Graham was born to the rhythm and chose the banjo. Like his fellow Rangers, Graham plays his integral role impeccably with panache. His banjo makes us boogie with his blistering runs on Tell the Ones I Love, Lay Myself Down, and Looking Glass. He has us charging full speed with his hard-drive on Blow Me Away and jumping straight up and down with his peppy pops on Break. Graham also stops our heart with his grace on songs like On The Water and Boomtown, his pings summoning us to center on the significant. We shed a thousand tears from the beauty. We cheer Graham’s seamless Scruggs-style on in “Come Dance” and countless others, and his bona fide lines that tell our stories sweep us away. Graham harkens us back to those magical times when we just flew in Radio, cleverly cuts to the chase in Monumental Fool, and straightens us out with Down That Road Again. Everybody swoons when Graham sings too. He hits the lowest of the low notes, grounding us with all things good.
The Steep Canyon Rangers collaborated with Steve Martin on the recently released The Long-Awaited Album, and are currently working on an upcoming Rangers’ release.
Graham graciously allowed us to grill him about his formation, all things Rangers, and what’s next for this creative crew.
JH: How did banjo become your instrument? Who were your influences and how did you get into bluegrass?
GS: When I started playing banjo coincided with when I got into bluegrass. I did not grow up listening to bluegrass. I was into the Grateful Dead in high school and I got into the banjo from Jerry [Garcia]. That’s really when I first started getting into bluegrass. And, I had a teacher in high school who turned me onto Norman Blake. You start hearing Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, David Grisman and people like that in Old and In the Way and you start connecting the dots. The same thing with Norman Blake and John Hartford and New Grass Revival and all that stuff.
I was a saxophone player in our school jazz band through high school and when I got into college, I was playing on the soccer team. It took up all of my time. Eventually, I ended up having surgery around Christmas time my first year in college. I then had all this time and I kind of drifted away from the soccer team. I pawned my saxophone and bought a banjo when I came back from Spring Break that year. While I was recovering from surgery, I started teaching myself banjo.
JH: You bought a banjo because you liked the sound from what you heard from Old and In the Way and such?
GS: The banjo was the sound for me that defined bluegrass the way I heard it. The banjo was what I gravitated towards.
JH: When did you know you had a gifted voice? Did you grow up singing at all?
GS: No. I still don’t think I have come to that realization quite yet. I guess I have taken my voice just more in the context of the band. You know, Woody is our lead singer, and when I come into sing, it is just kind of like a change-up and something to give a little different flavor. I have certain parameters. I don’t try to do too much. But, there are things that I can do when I sing that Woody does not do given just how low and sort of rough my voice is.
I have always loved singing and when we were first learning to sing, I would sing mostly the bass or the baritone parts. I love how it is kind of like your job in bluegrass as the banjo player to be the baritone singer. That’s like J.D. Crowe: play the banjo, sing the baritone. It just seems like those two things go hand in glove. I had a couple of old J.D. Crowe bootlegs that I just treasured because the sound was pretty bad, but the way it shook out was that pretty much all you heard was the banjo and the baritone vocal. Those were like my practice tapes. I really treasured them.
I still feel self-conscious about singing, but I feel a little better about it. Every time someone comes up to me and says they like my voice and my singing, it makes me feel a little better.
One thing we try to do as a band with voices is that we recognize that different voices stand out at times in songs. So, we may not necessarily have one voice singing the lead or one voice singing exposed the whole time. We have tried to keep our vocal arrangements really interesting which I think has been good for me as a singer.
JH: How did the Steep Canyon Rangers come to be and when did you realize music was going to be your career?
GS: Woody, Charles and I were buddies in college before we started playing music together. We hung out with the same circle of friends and we sort of discovered that we were all kind of getting into the music at the same time. Sometime near the end of our first year of college, we started playing together. It was really just: “let’s get together and try to figure out how to play this music.” We just loved hanging out playing songs and trying to learn how to do it. We had a couple of songbooks like Pete Wernick’s songbook that we just wore down to the pulp. While we all had musical backgrounds nobody came from a really focused musical background.
It is how we spent all of our time. We were fortunate that when we put the band together we didn’t have any expectations or outside pressure. When we were starting in Chapel Hill for all we knew we were the only bluegrass band within 10,000 miles from there. Obviously, once our eyes were opened a little bit, we realized that we were in the middle of North Carolina and all the best bluegrass bands live right here. But, for us, we were on this island of a college campus. If we were trying to pick a genre our friends would like or we thought we would be successful at, it would not have been bluegrass. But, we started playing a couple shows at little local bars. We had tons of friends who would come and pack it out. We would know maybe twelve songs and just put those on cycle.
JH: And, at some point, obviously, things started taking off while you were in college?
GS: Kind of as college was coming to an end. But, everybody else still sort of had different ambitions. I taught school for a year coming out of college. Everybody still wasn’t quite decided on it, but we stuck together and we were doing a few shows here and there, mostly around the Piedmont in North Carolina, and then we would drive out to Colorado in the summer. We would love going to RockyGrass. We would enter the band competition and it would be fun, but then we started taking it a little more seriously and we won it one year! At that point, we didn’t have families and we didn’t have mortgages. We didn’t have any of that. So, we were like yeah, we can make enough money to live on playing music. This is no problem [laughs].
We have been blessed. Woody, Mike and Charles all have really good business sense and have really put a lot of thought into that side of it. We just stumbled into this situation where everybody has very complementary talents and everyone has kind of grown into their roles. And, just keeping everyone together has definitely been the biggest thing for us: keeping the same group of guys together.
JH: It seems like a little bit more jam or improv going on in your performances these days. Is that true? If so, is that a conscious decision for direction or is this just how the band has evolved organically?
GS: Coming from my background, loving the Grateful Dead and stuff like that, it just seems like a natural part of the music. But, for us, we play performance arts centers one night then for a big dancing field of folks who want something they can get down to. So, we have put a little conscious effort into saying when we’re doing this type of show, let’s put in this song and with this song, let’s just stretch this part out. It is something more recent and it is fun.
In the earlier years when we were playing those really hard-core bluegrass festivals, the arrangements of every song were just airtight because you go on before the Lonesome River Band or after Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. You are just going to sound like a slob if it is not right. So, that was a big focus of the band early on: to just get those airtight arrangements.
But, it has been good for us every once in a while to say, “Hey, we don’t need to stop right now; we can just kind of make this up,” and we kind of know where we are starting and we know where we are going. Usually, we get there without running into the guardrails too much.
JH: You know where you are going, but not everyone does. When you bring the song back around and the crowd goes wild that must be pretty fun, I imagine.
GS: It is. It actually works in most settings. This crowd (at DelFest), they kind of know what is going on. But, you see other crowds when they realize that we’re just flying by the seat of our pants and they get up on the edge of their seats a little bit more.
JH: You write a ton of songs. What is your song-writing process? Do things come out in large chunks? Do you do the music first or the lyrics?
GS: I wouldn’t say they usually come out in large chunks. Usually, it is just like a little bit of inspiration and then I put in the work on top of that. I try to keep my eyes open for the inspiration and when it hits, pay attention to it, and don’t take it for granted. Then, from there I apply the craft and the work that goes into it because it is a discipline, I think, for the best songwriters. There are exceptions, but, I think, in general, the best songwriters just go back to it day in and day out.
I try not to force it. If there is nothing that I really want to write about then I won’t do it. For me, it is a very emotional thing. If I write a song and it makes me laugh or cry or something like that, I feel like it has done its job. It may not be anything anyone else wants to hear, but I will be satisfied with it.
JH: As far as inspiration, you have some classic lines in your songs. For example, “You’ve never done nothing for love” (from Monumental Fool). That sticks out because it says so much. Do you get these classic lines and work the idea around them or is it more that you decide to write about a particular person (in this example)?
GS: I think more than anything the lines that really end up being the special ones are not always what you start with. You don’t have to start from brilliance. You can start with an idea of where you’re going or some images or something like that. Then, as you work on it, if it is working, things will just start coming to the fore. In that example, that was one of the last parts of that song I wrote. So, for me, when you’re putting together a song, you’ve got the verse, of course, and if you’re doing a bridge, then it needs to sound a certain way. Sometimes, you just have the music kind of lead you there and do it the Mick Jagger way: we need something to go: blah, blah, blah with this many syllables and rolls off the tongue like this. And, then, you keep that in your head and write it.
But, some songs are different. The last song I wrote I was driving my daughter to field hockey practice and when I got her there, I was like, “Hold on, I just gotta sing this into my phone really quick before we go across the parking lot.” It turned out being a song I was really happy with. You really have to be conscious not to take it for granted; not let it go and say, “I’ll remember this” because it will be gone, and I will be beating myself up.
JH: Can you share a couple of your favorite songs that you wrote and explain why they are your favorite?
GS: I still get emotional on stage with some of them because I think if a song comes from a real place then people get it. I really enjoyed writing Radio off our last record because it came from a really cool place. I found this old tape that my brother made me way back in the day, and it got me back in my head when we were kids – upstairs at our house listening to the FM radio and just falling in love with music.
A song can really crystallize something like that and put it into a little capsule for you. You can go back to it. I think that song is really what I like about songs in general which is that sometimes a song can bring you there. It will bring you back; it will bring you forward; it will bring you into the moment; it will bring you out of the moment; sometimes, whatever you need.
JH: Were you an English teacher?
GS: I was a reading teacher. Comparative Literature was my major in college. So, I get a lot of stuff from books. One song I wrote which might be on the new record we’re making is from re-reading The Great Gatsby. I got to the end and just had a song right there for where Nick was going and what was going to happen to him after the book. No offense, Mr. Fitzgerald, but there is more. It is fun. You read a good book and it sticks with you. It lodges itself in your head and it is natural fodder for songs.
JH: Can you write about Atticus Finch, Jem and Scout?
GS: Actually, I did. I wrote one after I read Go Set A Watchman. I wrote a song called, Alabama’s Calling. How she thought she could get away from home. She was out of there, but she ended up being sucked back in.
JH: As far as writing with the band, how does that work?
GS: We really work through it as a band. Some stuff shows up kind of fully formed and gets completely taken apart and changed and rearranged. One of my favorite parts about the band is that you put it out there and then everybody will, hopefully, hear parts they like, parts to hone in on or parts that can be expanded. I remember when we were first starting with Radio, rehearsing on the bus one day and Nicky just kind of latched onto one little melodic riff and that became the riff of the tune. It is nice when you get it around other people’s ears to hear what strikes them and what doesn’t do it for them. There is definitely a ton of trust involved all the way around because these songs are like your babies and you bring them out and people start pulling them apart. You’re like, “What are you doing?” But, nine times out of ten, it is a really good thing and it gives everybody a voice in the song.
JH: Switching gears, I know Woody likes to fish and Charles likes to run. Is there anything in particular you like to do when you’re on the road?
GS: My perfect day on the road is pulling up on the bus kind of early, getting out and going for a walk or a run around town. I find something fun like that to do: just to see where I am and try to get a sense of the place. It is easy for each town to become every town – just the inside of the bus or the inside of the venue. So, I poke around. I also try to use my time on the road to work because when I am home, I really try to devote my time to my family. On the road, I spend time writing and playing the banjo and guitar and stuff like that.
JH: What is your favorite thing about playing DelFest?
GS: My favorite thing about playing DelFest is getting to DelFest and at some point within the first hour or two, Del will get on the bus and just hang out and say, “Hi.” That is the best! At that point, obviously, you would leave the festival incredibly satisfied. You could just turn around and go home because that is the best!
Del and Jean and all of the boys, they have always been so kind to us even from when we were nobodies! We opened up for them in this little hall in Chicago, I remember, before we met them. They were our heroes, our stone-cold idols. To be sharing stages with them and able to call them friends feels really good!
JH: Steep Canyon Rangers have a festival, Mountain Song Festival. What is the vibe and what are you going for there?
GS: It was the brainchild of Woody and his Mom. She was involved in the Boys & Girls Club down there and proposed that we put together a festival and raise money for the Club. So, we did the first year and it was one day. It is at this beautiful place, The Brevard Music Center, which is outdoors but has a covered shed. It holds about 2200 people.
The first year we had Doc Watson and sold it out. We were really committed from the very beginning to bring in our favorite people. What a treat it is to be able to curate your own festival. We have had Del there many times. It is now in its 10th year and it has raised well over half a million dollars for the Boys and Girls Club. It is really special and it is a real community event. There is no goal to get it big. It is 3-days now, but it is not going to get to 10,000 people. It is going to stay where it is. It works great, and it is definitely a reunion for us. Fans and friends drive in from wherever and we spend time with them.
JH: It sounds like it is kind of like a place where you can just feel the friendship floating in the air.
GS: Yes. That was a big part of bluegrass for me. Coming from the Grateful Dead background and going to shows, that was always a part of the music for me. It was the scene: everybody on the same level. When I went to my first bluegrass festival, I was this long-haired college kid way out in the country in North Carolina. I saw that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you get together, play the songs and have fun doing it, you can hang out forever and ever all night. For me, that was a big eye-opener in bluegrass.
JH: The Steep Canyon Rangers have collaborated with a million people — Steve Martin, Del McCoury, others—is there any musician who is no longer with us that you, yourself, wish you had an opportunity to collaborate with?
GS: John Hartford. As a banjo player who sings and writes, he is like my patron saint. He is my hero and he always makes me so damn happy every time I listen to him.
JH: What are you listening to now on your IPod?
GS: I love getting up in the morning on the bus and putting on some Don Williams or something nice and mellow like that. But, I also try to stay current with new records, mostly in the world of Americana. I still listen to Del a fair amount and Norman Blake.
JH: What is next on the docket for Steep Canyon Rangers?
GS: We are going into the studio. I am super-psyched about it. We have a bunch of tunes I am really happy with and just excited to see what is going to happen. We have a producer named Joe Henry who has done all sorts of different types of stuff. He has worked with Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt and has worked with T Bone a lot. He has a very song-based approach and he is not going to try to just shoe-horn things into a bluegrass box. I am super-excited about that.
Also, we have a record out with Steve Martin that Peter Asher produced (The Long-Awaited Album). Working with Steve is just a total blast. Being in the studio with Steve and seeing his whole creative process is super-inspiring. He is just such an inspiring artist. He works so hard and really puts in the thought and the time. He is obviously hugely talented. He crushes it on the banjo and has a lot of range. But, his success is no accident. He has been a huge part of our career. Steve has been really, really instrumental to us being able to do this all these years. He has put us in front of a lot of folks. I love that guy.
JH: When is the new Steep Canyon Rangers album coming out?
GS: Probably the first of the year. We have about five or six songs from it in and around the show these days. The Gatsby song, called Going Midwest is cool because it brings Mike Ashworth out from behind the drums. He is a really great guitar player, and he and Woody do this one with just two guitars, as a Simon and Garfunkel kind of thing.
It is really fun to take these songs and figure out how to give everybody their moments and focus on the talents because we really have a lot of talent in the band that has yet to really be fully tapped into. As a songwriter and arranger that is one of the great pleasures of working with a band that you know so well. You can go, “Where can we go with this? Let’s make whatever we want with it.”
Thanks, Graham, and all of the Rangers, for making what you have made with it thus far. You certainly have made it simple for us. All we have to do is turn it up loud and we’re ready to go. You have taken us to great places, and while we never wish for peril, we simply cannot wait for our next Rangers rescue.
Check www.steepcanyon.com often. Get to their shows. The Rangers will round up your troubles and set you free.