Thursday, April 7, 2011

Music feature: Steep Canyon Rangers reach new bluegrass fans, with Martin's help

From left:‭ ‬Mike Guggino,‭ ‬Graham Sharp,‭ ‬Woody Platt,‭
‬Nicky Sanders and Charles Humphrey III of Steep Canyon Rangers.

By Bill Meredith

Most bands don't become successful overnight,‭ ‬especially in a niche musical sub-genre like bluegrass.

Take the Steep Canyon Rangers,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬the quintet of guitarist Woody Platt,‭ ‬mandolinist Mike Guggino,‭ ‬banjo player Graham Sharp,‭ ‬violinist Nicky Sanders and bassist Charles Humphrey III that formed‭ ‬10‭ ‬years‭ ‬ago in Asheville,‭ ‬N.C.

After five years of touring and‭ ‬recording,‭ ‬the group was named‭ ‬Emerging Artist of the‭ ‬Year at the‭ ‬2006‭ ‬International Bluegrass Music Association awards in Nashville.‭ ‬The Rangers were then nominated for two IBMA awards in‭ ‬2008,‭ ‬continuing their slow upward arc.

But then a wild and crazy thing happened in‭ ‬2009‭ ‬to spike their ascent into the bluegrass stratosphere‭ ‬--‭ ‬some of the latest results of which include appearing on‭ ‬The Late Show With David Letterman,‭ ‬The Colbert Report‭ ‬and‭ ‬The View‭ ‬last month.‭ ‬That would be the Rangers‭’‬ guest sixth member,‭ ‬banjo player Steve Martin.

Yes,‭ ‬that Steve Martin,‭ ‬the zany‭ ‬1970s comedian who‭’‬s risen to movie stardom and become an accomplished screenwriter and author.‭ ‬Martin was displaying his accomplished claw-hammer banjo technique in slapstick sketches‭ ‬35‭ ‬years ago,‭ ‬but didn't add a serious musical release to his string of hit comedy albums until the‭ ‬2009‭ ‬CD‭ ‬The Crow:‭ ‬New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.‭ ‬The disc featured guest singers Dolly Parton and Vince Gill,‭ ‬dobro master Jerry Douglas,‭ ‬and Martin‭’‬s musical idol,‭ ‬banjo‭ ‬icon Earl Scruggs.

Such guest stars,‭ ‬Martin‭’‬s celebrity,‭ ‬and his estimable talents as both a‭ ‬musician and composer helped‭ ‬The Crow sell surprisingly well,‭ ‬and even win a‭ ‬2010‭ ‬Grammy Award.‭ ‬But when the rare bluegrass star decided to tour and needed a band,‭ ‬the hands of fate involved the Steep Canyon Rangers in ways that even Martin couldn‭’‬t have scripted.

‭“‬Steve got married a few years ago to Anne Stringfield,‭”‬ says Guggino,‭ ‬“who's a writer for‭ ‬‘The New Yorker.‭’‬ We knew her before they were‭ ‬even dating,‭ ‬since she‭’‬d been friends with Woody‭’‬s older brother and vacationed near Brevard‭ [‬North Carolina‭]‬,‭ ‬where Woody and I live.‭ ‬She lived in New York City,‭ ‬so she‭’‬d come to our shows there,‭ ‬and we even stayed at her place a couple times.‭ ‬Anne brought Steve to a dinner party in North Carolina shortly after he'd done‭ ‬‘The Crow‭’‬ and introduced us so we could all do some picking together.‭”

Which would‭’‬ve been a nice story even if it ended there,‭ ‬since all five band members were fans of Martin‭’‬s multi-faceted work.‭ ‬But all six musicians also sensed a chemistry.

‭“‬We hit it off,‭”‬ Guggino says,‭ ‬“and invited him to play with us at our next show in New York City shortly thereafter.‭ ‬We made sure we‭’‬d learned his songs really well,‭ ‬since we had the feeling that it might be an informal audition.‭ ‬Steve said he really liked the way the music sounded,‭ ‬and it turned out to be a very cool case of timing for us,‭ ‬because we‭’‬ve been playing with him ever since.‭”

Or as Martin‭ ‬put it in a‭ ‬news release:‭ ‬“Serendipity has made a better match than any bluegrass computer dating service,‭”‬ proving that his wry sense of humor is still sharp at the silver-haired age of‭ ‬65.

“We did a few smaller shows with him at first,‭”‬ Guggino says.‭ ‬“He came to North Carolina that September to play the Mountain Song Festival,‭ ‬which we host every year in Brevard.‭ ‬But I think the first official concert we did with him was at Carnegie Hall.‭”

Eighteen months later,‭ ‬having honed their collective talents on the road,‭ ‬Steve Martin‭ & ‬the Steep Canyon Rangers‭’‬ CD‭ ‬Rare Bird‭ ‬Alert‭ (‬Rounder‭) ‬was released just before the aforementioned TV appearances used to promote it.‭ ‬It soon hit No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬on the‭ ‬Billboard Bluegrass Chart.

On‭ ‬The Colbert Report,‭ ‬the six-piece band played Martin‭’‬s‭ ‬Jubilation Day,‭ ‬a comic,‭ ‬toe-tapping tale of the happy end to a sad relationship.

On‭ ‬The Late Show With David Letterman,‭ ‬they performed the hysterical gospel send-up‭ ‬Atheists Don‭'‬t Have No Songs.

‭ ‬“Until now,‭”‬ Martin said after the song title,‭ ‬adding a‭ ‬perfectly‭ ‬timed comic pause for effect.

Written by Martin,‭ ‬Platt and Sharp,‭ ‬the a capella call-and-response tune showcased the Steep Canyon Rangers‭’‬ layered vocal harmonies‭ ‬--‭ ‬and poked fun at more organized religions than an episode of‭ ‬South Park.

Rare Bird Alert‭ ‬also features the bluegrass reprise of a previous Martin hit,‭ ‬King Tut,‭ ‬plus guest appearances by Paul McCartney on‭ ‬Best‭ ‬Love and the Dixie Chicks on‭ ‬You.

‭“‬I would‭’‬ve loved to have met Sir Paul,‭”‬ Guggino says,‭ ‬“but we were certainly happy that‭ ‬he agreed to sing on the record.‭ ‬He recorded his vocals with Steve and the producer,‭ ‬Tony Trischka,‭ ‬in one day at a home studio while he was on vacation somewhere in New England,‭ ‬I think.‭ ‬But we were in the studio with‭ ‬the Dixie Chicks,‭ ‬which was great.‭”

One has to flash back to the Rangers‭’‬ pre-celebrity phase in the first half of‭ ‬2009‭ ‬to find the quintet's latest CD without Martin,‭ ‬Deep in the Shade.‭ ‬But most of their shows are still as a five-piece band,‭ ‬and‭ ‬feature the originals and covers by Leadbelly,‭ ‬Merle Haggard and the Grateful Dead from that release and a handful of others.

‭“‬I‭’‬d say a bit more than one-third‭ ‬of our shows‭ ‬are with Steve,‭”‬ Guggino says.‭ ‬“We're doing about‭ ‬150‭ ‬now,‭ ‬and‭ ‬50‭ ‬to‭ ‬60‭ ‬of those are with him.‭ ‬He also appears out of the blue occasionally and plays with us,‭ ‬which is always a pleasant surprise.‭”

In the Martin-less settings,‭ ‬the Berklee College of Music-trained Sanders‭’‬ violin solos are highlights,‭ ‬and bassist Humphrey gets ample spotlight despite playing the‭ ‬lone rhythmic instrument.‭ ‬Sharp‭’‬s banjo stands out as well,‭ ‬and he shows no trace of ego by soloing less when Martin is added to the mix.‭ ‬The two banjo players even engage in harmonized lines,‭ ‬like a bluegrass version of the‭ ‬intertwining guitars in the Allman Brothers Band.

All five Rangers are ace vocalists,‭ ‬with Platt the lead singer and Guggino his primary harmonizer.‭ ‬Yet those two are not the band's principal composers.

‭ ‬“Graham and Charles,‭ ‬our banjo player and bassist,‭ ‬are our primary songwriters,‭”‬ says Guggino.‭ ‬“Nicky and I have written instrumentals that appeared on our records,‭ ‬but those guys actually write vocal parts as well,‭ ‬even though Woody and I sing most of them.‭ ‬There‭’‬s no clear-cut band leader,‭ ‬which is pretty cool.‭ ‬We‭’‬re a democracy.‭”

Guggino says that the concert halls have gotten larger for the Rangers since Martin‭’‬s‭ ‬involvement,‭ ‬especially when he‭’‬s present‭ (‬though he‭’‬s not‭ ‬scheduled to be during the band‭’‬s mini-tour through Florida this week‭)‬.

“We definitely play bigger venues‭ ‬with him than we normally play,‭”‬ he says.‭ ‬“Even our shows without him are for more people in larger places like performing arts centers now,‭ ‬and we wouldn't be on those TV shows without him.‭ ‬But our run through Florida this weekend is‭ ‬pretty varied,‭ ‬and typical.‭ ‬We‭’‬ll do a private party‭ [‬in Tallahassee‭] ‬on Friday,‭ ‬a club‭ [‬Skipper‭’‬s Smoke House in Tampa‭] ‬on Saturday,‭ ‬and then a concert‭ [‬at the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach‭] ‬on Sunday.‭”

In their early‭ ‬30s,‭ ‬the‭ ‬members of the Steep Canyon‭ ‬Rangers are roughly half Martin‭’‬s age.‭ ‬They're young enough,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬to have grown up watching him as a film star rather than a stand-up comic and frequent‭ ‬Saturday Night Live host.

‭“‬Steve had really started into the peak of his movie career around the time we were all born,‭”‬ Guggino says.‭ ‬“He's so intelligent and driven,‭ ‬and works so hard at his craft,‭ ‬whichever craft it may be at the time,‭ ‬that it isn‭’‬t surprising that he‭’‬s so successful.‭ ‬Lots of other actors have tried music,‭ ‬but haven't reached the level that Steve has.‭ ‬And we get to see why he‭’‬s‭ ‬achieved that level first-hand.‭”

Steve Martin plays with Steep Canyon Rangers,
in a photo from the group's Website.
(Photo by Marcel Houweling)

Martin and the Rangers are clearly bringing bluegrass to a new and younger audience.

“I think Steve is doing more for bluegrass than anyone right now,‭”‬ Guggino says,‭ ‬“because of the sheer number of people that he‭’‬s taking the music to with the records,‭ ‬touring and TV shows.‭ ‬No one else is sitting on a couch talking to Letterman about banjo styles.‭ ‬I think he's the biggest shot in the arm‭ ‬that bluegrass has gotten since‭ ‬‘O Brother,‭ ‬Where Art Thou‭?‬’’

In the spirit of that popular film and soundtrack,‭ ‬and bluegrass in general,‭ ‬Martin and the band recorded‭ ‬Rare Bird Alert the old-fashioned way.

‭“‬We cut the album live in the studio,‭”‬ he says,‭ ‬“only overdubbing the vocal parts and any instrumental parts that needed fixing.‭ ‬Live recording creates an energy,‭ ‬and gives us a‭ ‬more authentic bluegrass sound.‭”

Yet recording with a comedy and acting celebrity doesn‭’‬t exactly invoke authenticity in the minds of bluegrass purists‭ ‬--‭ ‬who practically view the sub-genre as higher-octane gospel music.‭ ‬But it took a surprisingly long time for them to throw sell-out hand grenades at the Rangers.‭ ‬Which may,‭ ‬in and of itself,‭ ‬make the best case‭ ‬for this collective bringing bluegrass to a next generation of fans.

‭“‬We did get an angry e-mail this week,‭”‬ says Guggino,‭ ‬“but it seemed like this person was politically and religiously driven.‭ ‬I think he saw us perform‭ ‬‘Atheists Don't Have No Songs‭’‬ on TV and thought it promoted atheism,‭ ‬which it doesn‭’‬t.‭ ‬Then he lit into us for having the Dixie Chicks on the record,‭ ‬since they had a problem with President Bush a few years back.‭"

The e-mailer likely didn't realize that Martin is a native Texan who was born in Waco‭ (‬unlike the former president,‭ ‬who only resided in the Lone Star State‭) ‬and then literally moved to the left to grow up in California.

‭“‬Steve is genuinely just the nicest guy,‭”‬ Guggino says,‭ ‬“especially for someone who‭’‬s one of the most famous celebrities.‭ ‬He was probably the most successful stand-up comedian ever,‭ ‬and he‭’‬s been in so many movies that people recognize him all over the world.‭ ‬But he treats us so well,‭ ‬and is so respectful of us and our career,‭ ‬that he graciously promotes‭ ‬our band even when he's not working with us.‭ ‬Which he certainly doesn't have to do,‭ ‬but he does.‭”

So he rides with the band and stay in the same hotels‭?

“Uh,‭ ‬no,‭”‬ says Guggino with a laugh.‭ ‬“He's stayed in the same place as us before,‭ ‬but usually he‭'‬s somewhere else.‭ ‬Most of the time our band will leave on our tour bus right after a show.‭ ‬So we'll spend the night on the bus as it‭’‬s being driven to the next location,‭ ‬while Steve flies to our next show together and meets up with us.‭ ‬He jokes about that‭ ‬on stage.‭

“But he‭’‬s also written songs since the album came out that we‭’‬re already playing live,‭ ‬and there's been talk of doing some more recording.‭ ‬I think he'll do this as long as it's fun for him.‭ ‬And he sure seems to be having fun now,‭ ‬and we are,‭ ‬too.‭”

Steep Canyon Rangers‭ ‬play the Society of the Four Arts at‭ ‬3‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$15.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬655-7226.

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