Steep Canyon Rangers onstage at the Cistern Yard during the First Citizens Bank Front Row series at Spoleto Festival USA

Grade: A

I knew very little about bluegrass music, let alone the Steep Canyon Rangers, prior to seeing them perform at the Cistern. Based on what I had seen on TV and other media outlets, I assumed it was an offshoot of country music. After viewing Thursday’s performance, I now know that is too limiting a definition.

The Steep Canyon Rangers’ performance included everything that makes a live show great: Enthusiastic performance, crowd interaction, and consistent energy. The Steep Canyon Rangers is definitely one of the livelier acts for this year’s festival.

When the band’s not providing musical support for renowned comedian Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers are recording albums and touring the country with a unique brand of high energy, jaw-dropping bluegrass. After more than 20 years and 16 studio-albums, the North Carolina-based group has earned a reputation as one of the most successful bluegrass bands working today with three Grammy wins for best bluegrass album (2012, 2013, and 2021).

The first thing to marvel about this group is its collective musicianship. Consisting of guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist Graham Sharp, violinist Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Michael Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and drummer Mike Ashworth, the group is highly adept and proficient with its respective instruments. Still, while technical fluidity is impressive, it is always the music itself that is most important. The Steep Canyon Rangers make sure to never let individual talents overshadow group effort.

While every member of the band had something to offer in terms of technical skill, it was Sanders who seemed to garner most of the audience’s attention during the group’s instrumental segments. Throughout the set, Sanders played like a man on fire, dazzling the crowd with his dynamic and conversational solos on the violin. To put it bluntly, Sanders made playing the violin look like one of the most exhilarating things in the world.

Humid, muggy weather and a light drizzle made things a bit uncomfortable for some audience members, but it never took any attention away from the Rangers. In the middle of the band’s set, Platt addressed the fan-waving crowd with a reassuring sense of pride and confidence, sharing that this performance was the first time the group had played together onstage in 15 months.

“We will play through any damn weather,” Platt said.

The band made every second of its first Spoleto performance worthwhile, playing many numbers from its most recent album, Arm in Arm, released in October of last year.

Some of the more memorable songs from Arm in Arm included “Sunny Days.” Driven by a frantic banjo riff from Sharp, the song is one of the more upbeat tunes from the group’s latest album. The audience immediately responded to the song’s infectious beat, clapping along to the fast-paced rhythm. 

Another song that left an impact was “Be Still Moses” from the band’s 2007 album Lovin’ Pretty Woman. A slow, melancholic number, “Be Still Moses” is dripping with harmony, as the lyrics tell the biblical story of Moses from a more depressing perspective. While it is a sad song, “Be Still Moses” is just as catchy as the band’s other tracks, as most members of the audience sang along to the tune’s steady chorus.

“Honey on My Tongue” is also a song worth mentioning from last night’s performance. Another song from Arm in Arm, Sharp wrote the tune for his daughter, a fact that he took every opportunity to share with the audience at Cistern since his daughter wasn’t there to scold him. A serene song with loving lyrics, “Honey on My Tongue” captures the protective love between father and daughter.

For those unfamiliar with bluegrass, the Steep Canyon Rangers are definitely a group to look to for an education. Its members stay true to the traditions of the genre while adding personal touches to the music.

Patrick Henkels is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.