Steep and DeepNorth Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers take the bluegrass plunge
It’s true that Greensboro, N.C., is in the heart of the bluegrass region. There are endless bluegrass bands, pickin’ parlors everywhere, bluegrass festivals galore.But it’s equally true that you have to at least have your eyes and ears open for the sounds of bluegrass to seep in and take effect. Graham Sharp, for instance, is a Greensboro product, and even a musician who played saxophone during his high school days. But as far as bluegrass being an influence, Sharp may as well have been from Detroit.”That was a world I was scarcely aware of,” said the 20-something Sharp. “It was around. But it’s one of those things – it wasn’t in the places I was. You had to look for it, and it wasn’t in the places I was looking. I followed the Grateful Dead and played soccer.”If bluegrass wasn’t a completely foreign concept, it was because Sharp followed not only the Dead, but also the trail of the Dead. Sharp’s scant interest in bluegrass was born out of his fondness for the short-lived group Old & In the Way, whose banjo picker was the Dead’s Jerry Garcia. Sharp also dug his mother’s oft-spun copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” LP.Playing bluegrass, however, was a distant notion for Sharp when he arrived at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill – just as it was for Charles R. Humphrey III, an electric bass player; Woody Platt, who had sung in the choir; and Mike Guggino, a rock guitarist who some training in jazz and classical music. All were North Carolinians, all were UNC students – and all had a thorough ignorance of bluegrass. But prodded by another student, guitarist Dave Kuo, all four took a similar interest in acoustic instruments around 1996.
“We were lucky enough to be drawn to it together,” said Sharp. “We were all new to bluegrass, and were similarly drawn to it.” The four formed the Steep Canyon Rangers – with Sharp on banjo, Guggino on mandolin, Platt on guitar and Humphrey on bass, and the four collaborating on four-part harmony vocals – “And once we started doing it, we found out we could do it,” said Sharp. “Which was quite a surprise.”The Steep Canyon Rangers worked their way from living room sets to clubs and pizza shops around Chapel Hill. Sharp, a literature major in college, used his language skills to write a spate of lyrics for original tunes, with the other members chipping in with songs of their own. By 2001, the band was making strides toward the bluegrass big-time: they released their first record, “Old Dreams & New Dreams,” which was produced by Curtis Burch, the original guitarist of the legendary New Grass Revival; and won the band competition at Colorado’ Rockygrass festival. (Making the victory most noteworthy was the fact that, not only was it their first band competition, but the first festival they had ever attended as a group.)The band has since become fairly major players in the national bluegrass scene, touring all over the South, and making the regular trips to the Rocky Mountains. This Sunday, Aug. 22, the band plays at the summit of Aspen Mountain in the Bluegrass Sundays series. (They also appeared last night at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.)While the music seemed to come naturally, it was an adjustment for the members of Steep Canyon Rangers to fit into the bluegrass world. “It was like stepping into a new universe,” said Sharp. “All the bands are coming to it in a different way. But the bands our age are usually doing like an apprenticeship, built around an older band leader. We were different because we kind of sprung up on our own.”Like a handful of other bluegrass-leaning bands – including Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band, New Jersey’s Railroad Earth – Steep Canyon Rangers don’t exist solely in bluegrass land. Along with the hardcore bluegrass festivals they play, like Bean Blossom and Grey Fox, and their forthcoming appearance at the International Bluegrass Music Association Convention in Louisville, Ky., the band played last week at Floydfest in Floyd, Va., where they were surrounded by such progressive acoustic acts as Donna the Buffalo and Acoustic Syndicate. Next month. Steep Canyon Rangers are scheduled to perform at HarvestFest, in La Fayette, Ga., on a bill that includes Medeski, Martin & Wood and the Derek Trucks Band.
“We try to do a little bit of everything – the bluegrass barns they have across the South, theaters, all different kinds of festivals, high school auditoriums, clubs,” said Sharp.And while they make their own career path, Steep Canyon Rangers – rounded out by San Francisco fiddler Nicky Sanders, who joined at the beginning of June – attempts to create a unique sound as well. On their new, eponymous CD, the band keeps it traditional, playing all acoustic instruments, and focusing on short, tight songs with typical bluegrass singing. But their tempos tend to be furiously upbeat; they make no attempt to give their vocals the rural roughness of Bill Monroe and the other pioneers of the music.Sharp, though, says it is in the songwriting where the Steep Canyon Rangers are most able to distinguish themselves. Soon after they formed, after first investigating the classic bluegrass artists, the band started writing their own tunes. “By default,” said Sharp, from a tour bus rolling through Knoxville, Tenn. “We figured, we’re a band, we’ve got to write our own material.”The band’s 2002 CD “Mr. Taylor’s New Home” featured 10 original tunes. “Steep Canyon Rangers” has a dozen originals to go with a cover of the Jimmy Goebel waltz, “I’ll Drink No More Wine.” Among the original tunes are “Feelin’ Just a Little Like Dale,” a tribute to late race car driver Dale Earnhardt, and songs like “Lonesome Moon” and “Living in the Pane,” which fit fairly comfortably into the bluegrass tradition of broken-hearted love songs.”Bluegrass is a great foundation,” said Sharp. “But we put a lot of thought into our arrangements, and try to make them different. A lot of our sound has to do with the material not being traditional material.”
Since picking up the banjo, the world looks like a whole different place to Sharp and his mates in the Steep Canyon Rangers.”Now it seems like bluegrass is everywhere we look,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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