Steep Canyon Rangers: Evolving, but true to tradition

IF BLUEGRASS music has an equivalent to the relationship Bob Dylan enjoyed with the Band, it might be in the partnership that has developed between Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Dylan famously brought on the future members of the Band – originally known as the Hawks – to be his backing band on his 1965 and 1966 tours on which he plugged in and went electric, a move that sparked loud objections from some fans of his solo acoustic folk music.

In 1967, Dylan and the Band began an extended writing and recording session that produced songs that eventually emerged in 1975 on “The Basement Tapes” double album and a 2014 6-CD box set documenting more than 100 songs committed to tape during that time. Dylan and the Band then reunited in 1974 for an extensive tour that produced the live album, “Before the Flood.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers had been a band for some nine years and had released five albums when they met Martin and were selected by the comedian/banjo player to be his backing band on a tour to promote Martin’s bluegrass album, the 2009 release “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.”

A decade later, the collaboration is still going strong, with the Steep Canyon Rangers having done several tours with Martin and played on two more Martin albums – the latest of which is last year’s “The Long-Awaited Album.” Several members of the Rangers also played on “Love Has Come for You,” the album Martin and Edie Brickell released in 2013.

Looking back, mandolin player Mike Guggino said the timing to start working with Martin was ideal for his group. The Steep Canyon Rangers – which also includes guitarist/singer Woody Platt, banjo player/singer Graham Sharp, fiddle player Nicky Sanders, drummer Mike Ashworth and new bassist Barrett Smith (replacing Charles Humphrey III) -- were established enough in the bluegrass world to be seen as a viable band on their own, but still in a place where an association with a big name like Martin would help them grow their audience – and not deflect too much attention away from their own career

“I think if we had met him years later, it might not have been a good idea,” Guggino said “But I think we met him just at the right time when we were popular enough and good enough to be able to do the gig and bring something to the table, but not so popular and whatever that it would have been a bad choice to not do our stuff. And it really did help boost our career, for sure.”

And yes, the Steep Canyon Rangers continue to make albums and do their own shows between touring and recording commitments with Martin.

The group last year released their 10th studio album, “Out in the Open.” In addition to their appearance at the Savannah Music Festival, they are spending this spring and summer playing a mix of their own headlining dates and shows in which they serve as backing band for Martin and fellow comedian/actor/singer Martin Short, who together bring a mix of comedy and music to the stage in these shows.

For “Out in the Open,” the group worked with a noted producer who isn’t from the bluegrass world – Joe Henry. Going into the recording, Henry proposed a recording approach rarely used these days. He wanted the Steep Canyon Rangers to record completely live – including the vocals -- with no overdubbing.

Guggino said the band knew that could be a challenge.

“You’ve got to get every solo, every little backup lick, every harmony vocal, and you all have to do it at the same time, and if somebody messes up, the whole take is gone,” he explained.

But it turned out to be an effective way to record the songs, capturing the energy and fire of the group’s live show.

What also helps “Out in the Open” is that the band’s songwriting is strong throughout the dozen songs. The album continues the Steep Canyon Rangers’ move toward a broader acoustic sound that, while rooted in bluegrass, draws from other genres.

Highly melodic tunes like the easy-going “Farmers And Pharaohs” and “Roadside Anthems” are as much pop and Americana as any other genre.

The title song, a deliberately paced, harmonica-spiced track, leans old-time country, while the lovely ballads “Going Midwest” and “Best Of Me” have a timeless country sound. And even songs that have a good bit of bluegrass (“Let Me Out Of This Town” and “Love Harder”) have richer melodies than one might expect in that genre.

Guggino said the band is so pleased with “Out in the Open” that they have played the entire album during their headlining shows, while selections from their previous couple of albums fill out most of the rest of the set.

“Our style has changed so much over the last few years, kind of evolved to where it is now, we just want to play more of the newer stuff that sounds like that than the older stuff that doesn’t have that same kind of vibe going on,” Guggino said.