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Steep Canyon Rangers Drop Three Diverse Projects In One Year, Walking ‘Arm In Arm’

The Steep Canyon Rangers, from L: Barrett Smith, Nicky Sanders, Mike Guggino, Woody Platt, Graham Sharp and Mike Ashworth

Stars illuminate everything around them, but they also exert tremendous gravitational force, sucking in anything not fast enough to orbit on its own. This little physics lesson might be a way of thinking about the challenge facing the North Carolina string band the Steep Canyon Rangers. When superstar Steve Martin upped his banjo game ten years ago, he adopted the Steeps as his band, exposing them to huge audiences in live and TV settings. But the group preserved its identity, especially lately with three diverse albums in one calendar year.

“I’m really grateful for (the Steve Martin partnership) because it was a huge opportunity and it’s sustained us in a lot of ways, but it’s also almost doubled our workload, because we have to go back and make sure that we’re not losing sight of who we are as a band without him as well,” says founding banjo player Graham Sharp in his interview for the new episode of The String. “We made a conscious decision last year to kind of step off some of the shows that Steve was doing just to give ourselves more time as a band. Those albums are a product of us refocusing a little bit.”

First up, released almost exactly one year ago, was a live album of cover songs. Titled The North Carolina Songbook, it was that in every possible way. The venue was the Spring 2019 Merlefest, the behemoth Americana festival in Western NC. The repertoire was all North Carolina songwriters, including Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson and James Taylor. And it came out in NC colors and symbols on Yep Roc Records, one of the state’s premiere indie labels. After that came another project grounded in the state’s culture, a collaboration with the Asheville Symphony called Be Still Moses. Favorite Steeps songs like “This Mountain’s Gonna Sing” and “Call The Captain” with full, succulent orchestral backing plus a vocal harmony showpiece on the title track with R&B stars Boyz II Men.

Even off the road, the Steep Canyon Rangers have had a full 2020, releasing three diverse albums in a 12 month span.

Yet it is the new studio album Arm In Arm that best expresses the soul and searching sound of this 22-year-old band at this historic juncture in music. Formed as students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late 90s, when a national bluegrass tide was rising, the Steeps spent many years as a round-one-mike traditional band. As tends to happen with wide-listening, savvy musicians, the band gradually evolved into a rich Americana blend, bolstered by the addition of percussionist/drummer Michael Ashworth in 2013.

That percussive support doesn’t appear on the new album’s opening track, the silky “One Drop Of Rain,” but a backbeat supports a robust jam on the propulsive second cut, “Sunny Days.” Here all of the band’s gifts are on display, from Woody Platt’s optimistic vocal, through solos and interplay by Sharp on banjo, Nicky Sanders on fiddle and Mike Guggino on mandolin. It captures the band’s live spirit of trust and exploration. Platt says the form we hear on this track was improvised on the spot, not worked out in advance. “Every River” and “In The Next Life” have the breezy sway of country rock. The last few tracks are more subdued and peaceful, signing off with the prayerful “Crystal Ship.” It’s an album-length ride with many moods that hang together as well as any album the band has made in a 16-album career.

A few key landmarks on that journey are worth pointing to. The Steeps got on the national radar by winning the band contest at Rockygrass in Lyons, CO in 2001. The prestigious traditionalist label Rebel Records signed them, leading to the self-titled third album in 2004. The first personnel shift came that same year, when the SCRs, after starting life with fiddler Lizzie Hamilton and then platooning several area bows, brought on Nicky Sanders as its permanent fiddle player. With a background in classical music and formal training from the Berklee College of Music, he merged his technique with a genre that was rather new to him.

“They were really helpful - Graham, Woody and Mike - when it came to saying, hey, you really need to listen to Paul Warren and listen to this breakdown from 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,' or listen to the way Benny Martin plays this lick,” Sanders told me. The most challenging part wasn’t so much playing lead but playing within the fabric of the band. “Taking a solo and not having stage fright and not being afraid to just jump in, never had an issue with that. But learning to play backup behind the vocalists and to make it sound appropriate is probably one of the trickiest key things I think there is to being a bluegrass fiddle player.”

Sanders worked on the 2005 release One Dime At A Time, and the band was named IBMA’s Emerging Artist Of The Year soon after. So they were a thriving festival band and regional stalwarts when Steve Martin, through North Carolina connections, invited the band to be part of his new studio and stage life as a banjo player. With their first album together in 2011 they secured a Grammy nomination, but they won their award the following year for the album Nobody Knows You. Since then, they’ve been headliners with and without Martin, so busy they let their big anniversary shoot by without conspicuous recognition.

“It is amazing to me,” Platt told me about flying past 20 years as a band in a segment of our conversation that didn’t make the final cut of the podcast. “There are so many ways to look at it. One, you think we’ve accomplished so much, just being able to keep the band together and travel and have the success that we’ve had. And on another (hand) we have so much more we want to do. We feel like we’re just getting started. I like that we have that youthful feeling inside us even as we get older and the band is more seasoned. We’re gonna keep clawing at this vibe.”