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Steep Canyon Rangers promise ‘Space, darkness and light’

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The Steep Canyon Rangers. The Steep Canyon Rangers. (photos courtesy Steep Canyon Rangers/Big Hassle/Shelly Swanger)

North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers have established themselves as one of America’s preeminent bluegrass bands and they’ve done it through a combination of shared vision, a love for the form and a persistent drive to evolve.

The Grammy-winning sextet, known for their ability to tailor a show for any type of venue, says they’re ready to present their “performing arts” face when they grace the stage of Orono’s Collins Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, April 21.

“We love playing a room like the Collins Center,” percussionist Mike Ashworth said during a recent interview. “We can play a festival show for 50,000 people, a bar with people standing up, clinking glasses and cheering or we can play a listening room. We’re different people in each of those venues.”

Ashworth says that the band’s upcoming show at the Collins Center will be a very dynamic one.

“It’s going to be a voyage,” he said. “We’re going to use space, darkness and light and we’re going to create moments that are really intimate and intense. We’ll showcase dynamics and tension. We use both traditional and new lighting techniques – from one spotlight to funky laser-looking lights with lots of smoke. We love types of rooms like the one at the Collins Center that are acoustically engineered. They allow us to showcase our entire staff.”

From their humble beginnings as a weekend college bluegrass party band at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to their present embodiment as contemporary champions of the musical genre first popularized by Bill Monroe in the mid-1940s, the members of Steep Canyon Rangers attribute the band’s success to their fans, their friendship and a desire to never stop learning, according to Ashworth.

“These are some of my best friends. We all grew up together. Half of the band had been friends since middle and high school, playing soccer in our small town of Brevard. We’ve been close for ages now and that doesn’t go away,” Ashworth said. “We’re all dedicated fans of this music and we’re still trying to learn. We’re still discovering new things in this music even though we’ve all been at it for many years.”

Established in 2000 by friends Woody Platt on guitar, Graham Sharp on banjo and bassist Charles R. Humphrey III, Steep Canyon Rangers played anywhere and everywhere in those early dues-paying years.

The group’s vehicle would be packed with instruments as the musicians would try to squeeze in and around guitar and banjo cases, which would inevitably be opened for some live road tunes. Before long, Platt asked longtime friend and mandolinist Mike Guggino to join the group, as word of mouth – a true bluegrass roots campaign – gradually began to grow around them.

Playing festivals proved to be a key component to spreading the good word of Steep Canyon Rangers. The 2001 RockyGrass festival in Boulder County, Colorado, saw the group win a first-place prize which included a feature position on the festival’s main stage the following year.

As relentless touring helped the Rangers expand their audience, they continued to write and record new music as time allowed. In 2005, the band’s fourth album, “One Dime at a Time,” hit #13 on the Billboard bluegrass chart. 2007’s “Lovin’ Pretty Women” gave the band a top-five album. “Deep in the Shade” went to number three in 2009 – the same year the band began to collaborate with comedian and actor Steve Martin – a longtime bluegrass lover and a fiercely talented banjoist in his own right.

“It’s still kind of surreal,” Ashworth said of his band’s work with Martin. “The different kinds of shows we can do together is astounding.”

(To be clear, Steve Martin will not be joining Steep Canyon Rangers in Orono on April 21. However, they are touring with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short in a new show this year. More on that in a moment.)

With Steve Martin, Steep Canyon Rangers have performed around the world in venues ranging from New York City’s Carnegie Hall to London’s Royal Festival Hall. They’ve performed on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” BBC’s “Later…With Jools Holland” and PBS’s “Austin City Limits.” Together, SCR and Martin have performed symphony shows and full music/comedy hybrid concerts, all to packed houses.

“Every once in a while, we still have to pinch ourselves because you look over and there’s Steve Martin,” Ashworth said with a laugh. “He’s a very serious and studied musician. A lot of people might not recognize that until they see his show. The casual Steve Martin fan might think we’re in stitches all the time backstage, and we frequently are – he’s very fun and relatable – but he’s also very serious about his musical craft.”

Longtime Steve Martin fans will recall the comedian’s classic 1970s albums, “Let’s Get Small,” “A Wild and Crazy Guy” and “Comedy Is Not Pretty.” Still coveted by fans of classic comedy, each record included brief segments of Martin demonstrating his banjo prowess. What was considered a tongue-in-cheek novelty by some critics proved to be examples of an art form very close to the comedian’s heart.

Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers collaborated on 2011’s “Rare Bird Alert,” recorded in Ashville, North Carolina. A #1 Billboard album, it included guest appearances from Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks.

In 2012, Steep Canyon Rangers recorded “Nobody Knows You.” The album went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 2013 ceremony.

That same year, Steve Martin asked Steep Canyon Rangers to join him for “Love Has Come for You,” an album of songs written and sung in collaboration with musician Edie Brickell. Another #1 bluegrass bestseller, Martin, Brickell and the Rangers took the record out for an extensive tour. It was the same year when Mike Ashworth was asked to join the band as a full-time member. He had filled in on occasion in the past, including a 2003 tour where he subbed on bass.

““Love Has Come for You” was produced by Peter Asher,” Ashworth said. Asher was Peter of ‘60s pop duo Peter & Gordon, and later the head of A&R for The Beatles’ Apple Records label. He became a producer and manager for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, among others.

“When they recorded the album, Peter said ‘It’s magnificent and we’re going to tour this. I’m going to get a musician who can play guitar, drums, keyboards, and do some backup vocals,’” Ashworth recalled. “The band said ‘Wait a minute. We have a guy in mind.’”

As happy as Ashworth was to receive that phone call, he remembers one thought that makes him laugh today when he tells the story.

“The first thing that went through my mind was that we are not going to put drums in the Steep Canyon Rangers,” he said, laughing.

Some bluegrass purists look upon drums as a verboten instrument. In unsubtle hands, drums can easily overpower string instruments, especially in an unamplified acoustic setting.

Although legendary bluegrass artists like Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs experimented with drums, most purveyors of traditional bluegrass perform without them.

In recent years, progressive bluegrass bands (sometimes referred to as “newgrass”) have added a variety of nontraditional instruments to the form, including drums, electric guitars, pedal steel and keyboards. Groups like Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek and jam band String Cheese Incident are frequently stamped with the “newgrass” label, but their music and influences are actually more genre-bending in both composition and instrumentation.

Ashworth says that for his initial meeting with Peter Asher, he brought a unique percussion instrument made by a builder from just outside of Boone, North Carolina - Josh Trask of Moravian Percussion.

“He’s a drummer and a finish carpenter,” Ashworth told me of the creator of the “Box Kit” – a reinvented version of the traditional Peruvian cajon drum.

“It’s an incredible instrument,” Ashworth sayid of his Box Kit. “When they called me to join the band, I took it to New York along with a full drum set. I really wish I hadn’t lugged a full drum set up there because as soon as Peter Asher saw the Box Kit, he was sold. It can do so much and it has the added bonus that it doesn’t really look offensive. A drum-set can immediately turn off some bluegrass fans, but when they see this, they’re curious enough to hear it out to see what it can do.”

Homemade cajon drums began to show up in a variety of musical settings at the turn of the 20th century. As big-commerce shipping began to take off in the late 1800s, some musicians built their own cajon drum from the remaining crate wood.

“What is unique about the Box Kit is that it gives you the entire drum set. I have a kick-drum pedal and a snare,” Ashworth said of the instrument that he first saw played by Futureman, percussionist for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, at MerleFest in 1998.

“The first time you hear it, you’re struck at how much sound comes out of the thing,” Ashworth says of the Box Kit. “It’s really unique, and hopefully the acoustic world is staring to embrace it.”

Ashworth can be heard playing the Box Kit in concert with Steep Canyon Rangers and on the band’s latest #1 bluegrass album, “Out in the Open,” released this past January, just four months after “The Long Awaited Album” - another collaborative record with Steve Martin.

“Out in the Open” combines elements of bluegrass, blues, folk, country and pop on a record steeped in tradition but tinged with more contemporary influences. The Rangers’ fraternal harmonies weave themselves around a set of beautifully constructed songs recorded completely live in the studio.

“We’re very proud of this album,” Ashworth said of “Out in the Open,” produced by Joe Henry (Elvis Costello, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt). “We recorded it in Mitch Easter’s studio (early producer for R.E.M. and former front-man for Let’s Active).

“The entire thing was recorded live with no separation, no sound baffles and no overdubs,” he continued with pride. “It’s the first time we’ve recorded 100 percent live in the studio. It was a very daunting first for us.”

Ashworth explains why it is very unusual for a band to record live in the studio with no overdubs or fixes.

“If someone goofs, you have to start over as a unit. When you record this way, you really listen to each other as a unit. Joe Henry taught us how to listen to each other as a listener. We would listen as a whole and understand what was good about it or what needed to change. Because of that, we actually let some mistakes fly. There are things we probably would have fixed in the past but at the sacrifice of the vibe that we got in the studio.”

“Out in the Open” is a spacious recording that somehow manages to retain a strong sense of intimacy – a testament to producer Joe Henry’s knowledge of recording technique. Recording with no separation of the musicians or instruments normally results in audible microphone leakage (instruments and voices picked up the other musician’s microphones).

Shortly after my conversation with Mike Ashworth, he was due to hop aboard the band bus for a series of shows with Steve Martin and Martin Short.

“It’s a new show where we really only play four to six songs and it’s more of a vaudeville kind of thing,” Ashworth explains. “Every 10 or 15 minutes, there’s a new bit. It’s really fun but very different from the kind of show we’ll perform in Maine.”

In February, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Steep Canyon Rangers filmed a Netflix special in Greenville, South Carolina. “Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life” will be available this summer and will include Steep Canyon Rangers performing with Martin and jazz pianist Jeff Babko of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

I asked Ashworth to cite the most personally rewarding aspect of being a member of Steep Canyon Rangers.

“I imagine that most of us would have a very similar response to your question,” he said.

“Creatively, we don’t try to hold each other back. We create an environment as a team where you’re expected and inspired to bring something to the table. Nothing is ever off-limits in terms of trying a new sound or approach. This band doesn’t ever want to stop growing or changing. The art is always evolving and that is very inspiring. Even on our classic tunes that we’ve been playing for over a decade, there’s some small way that we do it this year than we did last year. Next year, it will evolve again.”

After playing a show, would we find the band still playing on the bus ride to the next city?

“Most of the time, yes,” Ashworth said with a chuckle. “We get on the bus and go to the back lounge, open a few guitar cases and the next thing you know, it’s way too late and we probably should have gone to bed (laughs).”

(Tickets for Steep Canyon Rangers, live at the Collins Center for the Arts, Saturday, April 21 at 8:00 pm, are available at www.CollinsCenterForTheArts.com or by calling the box office at 581-1755.)

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