Without question, one of the most influential outfit in today’s bluegrass realms — or for that matter, the entire grassicana firmament — the Steep Canyon Rangers, have continually led the way when it comes to making music from a populist perspective. Although they hold true to an instrumental template that some might see as that of a vintage variety — meaning the sound of guitar, stand-up bass, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, as well the prerequisite high harmonies — the band has managed to move beyond those traditional trappings by putting an emphasis on solid song structure and their own distinctive designs.
That’s at least one reason why the band also remains such a remarkably cohesive unit. It succeeds in being the total sum of its parts, and the absolute ability to offer each member an opportunity to contribute to the creative process.
As a result, it’s no exaggeration to say that the band’s new album, appropriately titled Arm In Arm, may in fact be its best yet. It’s their first studio effort to feature the newest member of the band, bassist Barrett Smith, and yet, given the remarkable synchronicity that’s always been so essential to their sound, the musical mesh is as immaculate as always.
“It’s really not a challenge to integrate a new member into the fold, because the band’s character itself is already so strong,” banjo player, singer, and songwriter Graham Sharp suggests when asked about that internal assimilation. “On the one hand, everyone’s here for a reason. We just fall into this groove. Obviously we have some weird arrangements and our songs are not entirely normal, but the other part of that is that whenever you bring somebody in, you’re really hungering for their flavor and the things that they can bring in, and that’s what you’re looking for. You’re not looking to stay on the same level when you add somebody. You’re looking for a reason, and you’re looking up. And it’s really cool, because all the time you spend together on the bus, or backstage talking about music, you see how it manifests. Like on the song Honey On My Tongue, Barrett’s playing the bass and what he’s doing sounds like Astral Weeks. So, I think that rather than try to shoehorn somebody into a certain role, you also have to be willing to let the music expand to meet them where they are as well.”
Even so, given that the Steep Canyon Rangers have a history that dates back some 20 years, the intimidation factor might seemingly lurk below the surface for anyone who finds himself the new kid on the block. Sharp acknowledges the possibility, but suggests that the chemistry of the band makes it fairly easy to become integrated into the ensemble.
“I don’t think they’re as intimidated as they are surprised by the level of simpatico that exists once you get inside the band, and see the interactions personally and musically, and how much real focused work goes into it,” he remarks. “Once you’re inside, you can see the interaction. I don’t know how unique that is from band to band, but I know that people marvel that there’s a lot going on that they might not have suspected.”
Given that interaction, it’s not altogether surprising that the band — Sharp (banjo, vocals), Smith (bass, vocals) Woody Platt (vocals, acoustic guitar), Michael Ashworth (box, cajon, drums, vocals, miscellaneous percussion), Mike Guggino mandolin, harmony vocals), and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) — have been especially prodigious of late. Notably, Arm In Arm is the band’s third album in the past year, following North Carolina Songbook, recorded live at MerleFest in 2019 and released this past November, and Be Still Moses, a collaboration with the Asheville Symphony that was issued last March. The latter provided fans with a further surprise when the band shared the title track with the hit soul group, Boyz II Men.
“They were all someone’s bright idea, and it was like, okay, let’s go for it,” Sharp responds when asked about all the accumulated activity. “The MerleFest thing just feel into place. We were brainstorming what MerleFest could look like last year, and because we had done MerleFest so many times, we were thinking about what we could do that would be new and different. So the idea of covering North Carolina artists came about. There was going to be a recording truck there already and a video crew, and everything just fell into place. We had one shot, so we just managed to go out there and capture it. It was so nice to be on such an iconic stage, a place where we feel totally comfortable, a place where we not only get to go out and play a set of songs for a huge crowd of people, but one where we can play songs we never had played before for the first time. Not only that, but to also be able to record them.”
“The symphony album was kind of the same thing,” he continues. “The Asheville Symphony folks had an idea, and they presented it to us, and we loved it and just kind of went for it. With the Boyz II Men collaboration as well, a really cool thing came out of it. So none of those projects were the result of long-range planning. The idea wasn’t that we were going to swamp the market with all these records. It all just happened to fall into place. As far as the new album goes, it was just time to cut a studio record, and we had the songs more or less, and we were really eager to get into the studio with Barrett because we hadn’t done a studio record with him.”
The new album was recorded last winter at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Studios. “It was totally wonderful set-up,” Sharp recalls. “Brandon Bell was the lead engineer there, and he had engineered Nobody Knows You in 2012, so we had kept him on our radar for a long time and had wanted to work with him again. So we jumped on the chance to work with him there. We co-produced this record with Brandon because his fingerprints are all over the place. We decided it would be good to let him share in the production credits, because he’s a very good engineer and he put his two cents in as far the arrangements were concerned. Because we had worked with him before and really liked the results, we trusted his input and direction. There are places where we had a lot of different options. So sonically, he’s really good at offering suggestions and throwing things around. We maybe pushed it a little farther than we had done in the past, but in other places, we pulled things back and maybe did it a little drier in order to capture the moment without any real filter on it.”
The album also finds the band doing what they do best, that is, to push the parameters a little further.
“There are some different sounds on this record that we haven’t used before,” Sharp notes. “Some that are maybe less bluegrass than they are rock and roll or country, or something like that, and I think that’s definitely a product of our influences. I think of a song like In the Next Life. Everybody in the band hears the influence in that song a little differently, but I think of it almost as a Kinks-type thing. Ashworth hears it as a Mark Knopfler kind of thing. Someone else told me it reminded them of Standing on the Moon by the Dead. We’re maybe not having to feel like we always have to translate our influences or the themes of the songs necessarily into bluegrass instrumentation. Plug the banjo into the amp and play it with a slide. I play electric guitar on Body Like Yours. A little thumb thing that I’ve never done before. So I think there are a lot of our various influences coming to the surface. But that’s been the case for a lot of our albums. Maybe it’s more fleshed out with the instrumentation that we have now. Plus, having Ashworth on the drum kit helps bring out those textures and make them more fully realized.”
Notably too, Sharp had a hand in writing every song on the album, and as a result, each track reflects the sentiment and strength he imbues in every composition. “A lot of it I kind of wrote between this and the last album, and there are a couple of songs that have been around for the last couple of years that we had bouncing and kicking around,” he notes. “Various people in the band at different points will remember a tune. We’ll be backstage and we’ll hear someone picking some melody out and it’s like, ‘Yeah, what is that? I remember that.’ Some of the tunes were kind of in the Steep Canyon memory for the past five or seven or eight years. Some of the songs that we go back to may be that old. Sometimes the moment’s just not right at the time. Sometimes it takes a certain mindset for the songs to fall into place in the right way.”
Sharp says that he’s accumulated such a healthy backlog of material that he has a solo project in the works, one he’s been working on while the band’s been off the road. “It’s something I’ve been meaning to do forever, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it if we had been on the road all this time,” he reflects. “I love the results, and I don’t know if it’s a record that anyone else in the world would care about, but I’m really happy with it, and proud of how it turned out. The Rangers have their thing and that’s my baby just as much or more so than this solo thing is. But it felt good to make something I can be really proud of, and that allows me to listen to myself without cringing.”
As most people know, aside from their own ever prodigious career, the Steep Canyon Rangers also have a secondary role serving as Steve Martin’s backing band. However Sharp says that as of now there are no plans to reconnect in the foreseeable future. “You never know when Steve will pop up with a new batch of songs, but it takes us getting together to work them out, and we really haven’t gotten together recently,” he notes. “Maybe next year. You never know, and if so, we can get to work on it. But at this point, we’re not any closer to it.”
Nevertheless, given their popular appeal, the Steep Canyon Rangers have made a lot of converts out of people that might not have necessarily been bluegrass fans before, but were attracted to the music through the group’s trademark melodic mix.
“I’m not sure how many we’ve brought into the fold,” Sharp suggests. “We have a lot of fans who have followed us over the years and still love the band and what the band does. Maybe they like some of the stuff we did ten years ago better, but they’re still fans of the band now, and still come out to see us. Some of the compliments that mean the most come from people that recognize what we’re doing. A bluegrass bandleader who played very traditional bluegrass came up to me a few years ago and said, ‘Hey, you guys are playing very different music from what we are. But I don’t care what anybody says, you guys are doing great things for bluegrass and really taking it out there.’ And that meant the world to me. Somebody I really respect in traditional bluegrass who said, ‘This world is big enough for us both, and what you’re doing helps me and what I’m doing helps you. We’re all in this together.’ That really stuck with me.”
Modesty aside, it’s hard to deny that the Steep Canyon Rangers have made an emphatic imprint on the entire bluegrass genre. Again, Sharp demurs, only to say instead that they’re simply doing the things they know best how to do, which is to write and perform memorable music, the kind that’s heard on Arm in Arm, and on all their efforts for that matter.
“I feel like we’re just keeping our heads down and trying to plow ahead with what we’re doing,” he insists. “It’s not often that I look up and survey the scene and see our fingerprints. I feel like we’re a very idiosyncratic band. I don’t feel like we fit neatly anywhere, which is sometimes difficult, but I think overall, it’s a wonderful thing. It gives everybody in the band a place where they can shine. We just try to focus on excellence as much as possible, and try to be true to ourselves and be true to the music. And if other people are influenced or moved by it, then wonderful and all the better. I think there’s such a high standard out there, and that’s what I love about bluegrass and bluegrass players, from the most traditional to the most progressive. That’s inspired us greatly, whether it’s Del McCoury or the Punch Brothers or whoever. There’s a level of excellence that gives us more to push towards and reach for, and having gotten to a level where we’re seen roughly on the same level as some of those bands…well, it gives you a lot of confidence, and confidence just breeds more creativity. We have the benefit of having done it for awhile and the confidence that sustains that original impetus which was to just keep pushing the music.”
Clearly then, Steep Canyon Rangers still revere their roots.
“Bluegrass has been great to us,” Sharp insists. “We feel a responsibility to go out there and present it, and whatever you call it — traditional or progressive — you have to go out and play your best, and do it the best you can.”