Get ready for some heady bluegrass tunes from Steep Canyon Rangers hailing from Asheville, North Carolina. | Photo provided

Grammy Award-winning string band from Asheville, North Carolina, the Steep Canyon Rangers, will hold court at the Charleston Gaillard Center Feb. 16 to kick off the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition

Although frequent collaborator Steve Martin (yes, the actor) won’t be along for the ride when the group rolls into town, the recently reshuffled lineup includes Graham Sharp on banjo and vocals, Mike Guggino on mandolin/mandola and vocals, Aaron Burdett on guitar and vocals, Nicky Sanders on fiddle and vocals, Mike Ashworth on drums and vocals and Barrett Smith on bass, guitar and vocals. 

Sharp told the City Paper that meeting the guys who would become the Steep Canyon Rangers was ultimately the “key to his musical path, first and foremost.” However, his individual explorations actually began during his teenage years.

“I got into the Grateful Dead in high school and experienced my first big concerts seeing them in the years before Jerry [Garcia] died,” Sharp said. “Jerry was one of my first introductions to bluegrass music; he was a pretty fine banjo player. My other first bluegrass love was, and is, Norman Blake, who was introduced to me by my Latin teacher in high school, Doc Frost. Through Norman came [John] Hartford, Newgrass [Revival] and all the other wonderful freaks of the genre.”

As Sharp ventured into banjo-playing territory, he was very much impacted by a master musician and genre-bender from Kentucky named J.D. Crowe. “J.D. was a monster of a player and a huge influence on me and the band,” Sharp said. “The way they [J.D.Crowe & The New South] were able to incorporate new music into traditional bluegrass and the level at which they did it was unrivaled.”

Still, when Sharp and his like-minded friends first formed the Steep Canyon Rangers in college at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2000, they were determined to make their own mark on the world of Americana music. 

“I wouldn’t even call us a bluegrass band, but that’s just me,” Sharp said. “I think 99% of the population would consider us bluegrass and that’s basically what’s under the hood of the SCR station wagon, but there are a lot of other bells and whistles as well.”

For Sharp and his bandmates, the end result is described as a distinctive blend of bluegrass, blues, country, folk, hillbilly jazz and rock. Nothing about the group’s work within any of these genres feels forced, as it is truly the culmination of a long and organic process involving lots of practice. 

“We learned the music from scratch and put in countless hours playing together,” Sharp said. Everything else grew from SCR’s collectively deep appreciation for and dedication to the craft itself.

Sharp said there were a number of musicians around Chapel Hill who took the band under their wings and opened a lot of doors.

“When we were getting started, a lot of small victories kept us inspired to keep going, until they turned into bigger achievements that we’d never even thought of originally — things like Grammys, [playing the] Grand Ole Opry, IBMA awards, [recording and touring with] Steve Martin, etc.”

Remarkably, this eclectic ensemble now has two-decades of shared experiences and over a dozen LPs worth of source material to draw upon. Yet, somehow it never gets old to Sharp and his bandmates.

“As we’ve evolved as individuals the band has been able to follow that,” Sharp said. “I think if you can stay curious and be willing to put the work in, there’s no time limit on your growth as an artist. So, that’s what we’re always shooting for. The band has been willing to follow the next path, even if it’s a little unfamiliar, if that’s what we’re drawn to. And choosing to play Music A certainly doesn’t rule out playing Music B; so, hopefully, we’re just continuing to grow into our potential.”

Although the dynamic SCR team has been prolific in the studio, Sharp said he is particularly excited about presenting the current lineup in a live setting. 

“The band on stage is very multifaceted at this point, and that’s by design,” he said. “With [guitarist] Woody [Platt]’s departure I think everyone in the group has stepped up a bit and that has been a huge bonus. Add to that Aaron Burdette, our new guitar player, and there’s a constant flow from one member to the next as far as who’s in the spotlight.” 

He added, “The new album is already finished, and we’ll be playing the fire out of it live.”

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