Steep Canyon Rangers at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville (2/17/23) – photo by Alissa Cherry
To describe the Steep Canyon Rangers as one of the best bands in bluegrass simply misses the point. After witnessing them live in concert, it becomes clear that they’ve clearly transcended any single genre, and even though they remain true to their bluegrass roots, while singing in sync around a single microphone and playing all acoustic instruments, the fact remains that they aren’t confined to any particular parameters.
The band’s remarkable performance at the Bijou Theatre this past Friday night (2/17/23) offered a perfect case in point. Their first return to Knoxville in nearly a year — a city they refer to as one of their prime stomping grounds, and one that lies a relatively short hop across the mountains from their home in Brevard, North Carolina — it also marked the introduction of singer/songwriter/guitarist Aaron Burdett, who joined the band after the amenable departure of founding member Woody Platt last year.
“We had a song on the bluegrass charts, but then we noticed the song above us was by this guy Aaron Burdett,” singer, songwriter, banjo player, guitarist, and Steep Canyon stalwart Graham Sharp noted. “We said, ‘Who is this guy? I don’t think I like him.’ But you know what they say, if you can’t beat them…”
Indeed, Burdett has integrated well into the Steep Canyon fold, sharing his songs through a seemingly seamless transition. In truth however, this is one of the most durable groups of musicians one might ever encounter, given the fact that the majority of its members share lead vocals, and most are adept at any number of instruments. Mike Ashworth, who plays a prime role as the band’s drummer — admittedly a rarity in bluegrass realms — is especially versatile given the fact that he also takes turns on bass, dobro, guitar, and banjo at various intervals throughout the performance. “There’s only one instrument on the stage he hasn’t played,” Sharp noted at one point, alluding to the stand-up bass. “And he gets grumpy if he doesn’t get to play it.”
He was joking, of course, but there’s no denying the verve and versatility each of the musicians possesses. Fiddler Nicky Sanders shares a certain energy and exuberance, and when he takes his solos, he becomes a whirling dervish at the center of the spotlight. Mike Guggino provides tones and textures on mandolin while taking a fair share of the backing vocals. Since his own arrival in 2018, Barrett Smith has also proven to be an able front man, frequently taking lead vocals while propping up his bass, or taking a turn on acoustic guitar. Sharp, who along with Guggino, has been with the band since the beginning, and could be considered one of the group’s de-facto leaders, graciously gives the other members ample opportunity to share center stage.
As a result, Steep Canyon Rangers are a remarkably seamless ensemble, one that finds each musician playing an equal role in their shared serendipity. The band was so cohesive in fact, that certain songs seemed somewhat subdued at first. It owed nothing to do with a lack of enthusiasm, but instead to the confidence and credence put forth as a solid and seasoned unit. Likewise, several songs would start quietly and build to a heightened crescendo, another example of the fluidity and finesse the Steep Canyon Rangers have at their command.
Consequently, the set list offered a mix of familiar fare and new offerings culled from a recently recorded upcoming album, as well as a few of Burdett’s own originals. As Sharp later told this reporter, because of the fact that the band performs so frequently in Knoxville, they wanted to offer something new. So while songs such as Call the Captain, Stand and Deliver, Honey On My Tongue, and Afterglow were naturally well received, so were the new entries as well, particularly Carolina Gals which opened the second set.
The band’s allegiance and affection for Carolina is, of course, a matter of deep devotion. Consequently when Barrett took the microphone for a tender and touching rendition of James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James — a track that appears on the band’s album, North Carolina Songbook, as recorded live at MerleFest in 2019 — it made for one of the most emotionally resilient moments of the entire performance.
Another cover, that of the Traveling Wilburys’ End of the Line, proved equally emphatic.
Then again, the fact that the Steep Canyon Rangers continually hold their audience in a steady sway makes it difficult to single out one particular moment over all else. This is a singular outfit after all, one that never fails to put on the best performance possible, while reaping the appreciation of a grateful audience in return. Friday offered yet another ideal example.