It seems fair to say that few bands are as responsible for bringing bluegrass into the mainstream this past decade than the Steep Canyon Rangers. In a career that spans more than 20 years, they’ve created a rich body of work that’s not only brought their melodic skills to the fore, but also attracted a multi-generational audience in the process. Those that are new to bluegrass have been enticed by their songs, their adept musicality, and a stage performance that keeps their audiences entertained and duly devoted as well. Traditionalists have also reacted well, given the group’s due diligence as far as form and finesse.
That was especially evident when the Rangers returned to Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theater this past Saturday night (March 12). The band has always had a certain affection for East Tennessee and the feeling is clearly mutual, making the show seem like something of a homecoming. As always, the band was in prime form, with a set list that consisted of over a dozen and a half songs drawn from their catalog, while leaning heavily on their last two albums in particular — 2020’s Arm In Arm and its predecessor, Be Still Moses — the crowd got an excellent sampling of the group’s most richly representative material.
Naturally, there are certain songs that always rouse the faithful — Sunny Days, Stand and Deliver, Honey on my Tongue, Take the Wheel, and Be Still Moses in particular — so it was no surprise that they were dispersed throughout the set, leading to one high after another. However, what’s most impressive about any Rangers performance is the way in which they shine the spotlight so equally on each member of the sextet. Naturally, singer/guitarist Woody Platt and singer/banjo player Graham Sharp (who also happens to be the one responsible for writing the majority of their material) tend to be those members who are most in the spotlight, but that doesn’t deny the other musicians ample opportunity to share their talents as well. Fiddler Nicky Sanders, wearing a mask for safety’s sake throughout the show, tends to steal the stage with his energetic moves and vibrant virtuosity, but so too, mandolin player Mike Guggino is an able support player whose steady chop underscores the arrangements, and brings the music added enhancement.
Still, the solo turns weren’t limited to the lead players. “New guy,” Barrett Smith, not only helped anchor the proceedings on stand-up bass and backing vocals, but also took the occasional lead vocal as well, proving to be more than competent in the process. However the man that showed the most muscle, instrumentally anyway, was drummer/percussionist Mike Ashworth, who provided the rhythm and spotlighted several other skills as well, rotating from drums to guitar, then bass, banjo, lap steel, and the occasional lead vocal. To his credit, when he took center stage for a song during the encore, he seemed genuinely moved at the warm response received from the audience. For a moment, he actually seemed speechless.
Nevertheless, it’s the band’s cohesive collaboration that’s most striking, as evidenced by their seamless harmonies and instrumental interplay. Their affection for the music, and each other, is obvious throughout. While they’ve elevated their stature through their ongoing employment as Steve Martin’s backing band, and their acquisition of a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2013 courtesy of Nobody Knows You, and a nomination the year before for their collaboration with Martin, Rare Bird Alert, it’s clear they excel all on their own.
The opening performance by husband-wife duo Chatham Rabbits proved an effective warm-up, given the pair’s down-home demeanor and distinctive presence. Their original songs are earnest and engaging, and when they reappeared as guests onstage with the Rangers, the interplay between the two outfits was similarly seamless as well. Hopefully, we’ll hear more from this pair as time goes by.