The Steep Canyon Rangers love what they do and would have happily carried on in the underappreciated world of a touring bluegrass band. But lately they’ve been thrust into a spotlight they could never have imagined.
Their new album, Nobody Knows You, arrives at the peak of their unlikely rise.
After teaming with comedian and banjo enthusiast Steve Martin in 2009, the Rangers began playing for massive crowds, placed their collaborative Rare Bird Alert album at No. 1 on Billboard‘s bluegrass chart and shared the IBMA award for entertainer of the year, the bluegrass industry’s highest accolade.
Martin’s presence certainly raised their profile, but it was no charity on his part. The band from Asheville, N.C., had the chops and teamwork necessary to help him achieve his bluegrass goals.
Recently, their work with Martin slowed down just enough to record a Rangers-only album. The result is the stunning Nobody Knows You. Modern bluegrass at its finest, it features a healthy dose of heartache, disaster and longing, all backed by playful melodies and crystal-clear picking. The first music video from the project, “Long Shot,” captures their energetic spirit.
With Woody Platt providing lead vocals and guitar and all members contributing to the vocals, the band also features mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Charles Humphrey III, fiddler Nicky Sanders and banjo player Graham Sharp.
Sharp, who also plays guitar and serves as the band’s primary songwriter, called CMT.com to talk about Nobody Knows You. He also reflected on the group’s amazing success, meeting Martin for the first time and what it feels like to perform in front of 400,000 people.
CMT: This year has been really exciting for the band. How’s everybody holding up?
Graham: It’s been busy, but it’s been a lot of high points in the last year. All the stuff we’ve been doing with Steve is just kind of unbelievable. Fourth of July on the Capitol lawn and those late night television shows, it’s been a lot of high points. And then to get back to our own thing and make a record we feel really good about. To bring it back to the five of us as a band felt really good for everybody. It’s been pretty phenomenal, and we’re lucky to be able to do more than one thing.
How many people were there at the Fourth of July performance at the U.S. Capitol?
Like 400,000 people, they said, and several million watching it live on TV. It was a heart-stopping moment. For the first eight seconds of the song, we couldn’t hear anything because everybody was clapping and yelling so loud. So you’re just trusting that you’re together. You really can’t hear anything. It was really one of the greatest moments. We’ve managed to get to a lot of big stages like that because of Steve. … Jazz Fest in New Orleans last year was unbelievable.
How did you come to team up with Steve?
We met Steve through his wife, whom we had known for a while before they were married — through Woody’s family, actually. She and Steve were married right around the time Steve’s banjo career was starting to take shape. It was kind of a process of just sitting in with him a couple of times doing some informal things, and that turned into a couple shows here and there. Then a couple more shows turned into a tour, which turned into more tours and then an album. So here we are.
Are you going to continue working together?
Yeah, we’re putting together a new show for this summer. We’ve got about 50 dates for this summer. He’s got a whole bunch of new songs he’s been working on, and we’ve got new songs in the works. So there are no plans of slowing down on either end.
How long have the Steep Canyon Rangers been playing together?
Twelve years? Thirteen years? When we started the band, we started it from scratch. We were all just beginners on our instruments, so it’s been a long learning process for us. There were three of us that were together in school in Chapel Hill, N.C. — Woody, Charles and myself — and we were drawn to that music for different reasons but all at the same time. For a couple of years, we all lived together in a house, and we’ve always lived in the same area. We put in a lot of hours on it.
You have a really beautiful record in Nobody Knows You. Were you able to push boundaries more since you’ve had so much success this past year?
I think so. I think the music doesn’t step out of bluegrass, but it kind of stretches bluegrass in a way that is more in keeping with the audiences we’ve had playing with Steve. It’s a wider audience that’s not necessarily a strictly traditional bluegrass audience. We’ve been lucky to be a lot of people’s first exposure to bluegrass.
One of my favorite tracks is the instrumental “Knobb Creek.” It’s got some fire to it.
“Knobb Creek” is a tune I love just because we’ve been doing it live for a while now and played it on some of these great shows. That song is really seasoned onstage. The way we recorded it is the way we play it live, so it is a really fun song because it has that stage energy built into it.
I think “Ungrateful One” has a chilling message. Can you tell me about that song?
People have commented that a lot of bluegrass has an affirmative family values thing to it. “Ungrateful One” is kind of the opposite of that. It came from a book called Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, which was written in Asheville. It’s a wonderful book about a father and his son and their relationship. How from a really early age the son is totally turned off about his father and the way his father acts. That’s what it’s really drawing on. It’s fun to do, but it’s sort of an uncomfortable subject matter, but definitely a powerful one.
In the liner notes it says you wanted to avoid “déjà-bluegrass.” What does that mean?
That was [music journalist and historian] Larry Nager’s quote, not ours, but I think he means making a record in a certain way, and we had done a few records like that. We still have barnburners, gospel songs, a couple of standard instrumentals and a cover or two of some classic material. We just tried not to fit in a certain mold or anything.
Is it hard to be original and fresh in bluegrass?
Not really, for us, just because that’s how we write. We never really sat down and said we need a song that’s like this or a song that’s like this. Once the song gets to the band, it gets interpreted in its own unique way, but I don’t think it’s ever a conscious decision that it needs to be bluegrass in this way and not bluegrass in that way. Playing on big stages with Steve has given us a lot of confidence to follow our own sort of muse. It’s a good feeling.