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Rare Birds

By Robin Tolleson

There are no drums in the Steep Canyon Rangers, but there's plenty of rhythmic drive when the quintet kicks into gear.

"The rhythm is equally divided," explains banjoist and vocalist Graham Sharp. "You've got the bass hitting the downbeats where the bass drum would be, and the mandolin kind of doing what the hi hat would be doing, the off-beats. That gives you the 'boom-chick' of the music, and everybody else is filling in around that. In a lot of ways the banjo is a rhythm instrument also. It's a function of all the instruments."

The Steep Canyon Rangers are nominated for a Grammy this year for the album they recorded with banjoist/comedian Steve Martin, Rare Bird Alert. It's something the group never imagined when they began playing together in the dorms at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-'90s. "It felt like we were the only people for a hundred miles playing bluegrass. We were sort of an anomaly at the university," Sharp recalls. "We started going to festivals, and realized that we're actually in the heart of bluegrass country, not far from where Earl Scruggs started playing the banjo."

Sharp didn't pay much attention to acoustic roots music until he got to Chapel Hill. A Comparative Literature major, he's the band's main songwriter. "I grew up listening mostly to rock and roll, but for me bluegrass is such a touchstone," he says. "I love the basis that it sets for stories and songs. So many images or associations go along with it that you can use in songwriting. The tradition of bluegrass is what appealed to me, and how you use that tradition, and how you might steer away from that tradition and write something a little more modern."

A saxophonist in high school, Sharp bought a banjo his freshman year at Chapel Hill. "We were all part of a larger circle of friends. I had known Charles (bassist/vocalist Charles Humphrey III) and Woody (guitarist/vocalist Woody Platt) before I'd even started playing, so it's hard to trace exactly where and when we first got together. It just happened that we were interested in this. We were learning it by ourselves, playing as much as we could and trying to figure it out by listening to recordings."

Sharp studied with a banjo teacher in Chapel Hill for about a year. "It's a daunting instrument to learn on your own," he says. "You hear all this stuff, but you can't really pick it apart. People who are playing bluegrass at the professional level usually come up through a sort of apprenticeship, playing with people who've been doing it for a long time. We were just learning from scratch together. In the long run I feel like that's helped us play our own style."

Even more impressive than their tight instrumental sound, is Steep Canyon Rangers' crisp four- and five-part vocal blend. "We had no idea what singing harmony even was," Sharp concedes. "Woody had sung in choir, and I'd been in a bit of choir when I was younger, but nothing serious. We had no idea how to approach singing as a bluegrass band, so none of it came naturally. We just worked and worked at it, and right now we're the product of twelve years of having done it more or less constantly."

"We've been lucky to keep the same group of people together [Sharp, Humphrey, Platt, mandolinist/vocalist Mike Guggino, and fiddler/vocalist Nicky Sanders], which is pretty rare," he continues. "We've worked hard, but it's been hard work for all the people around us too. We've been fortunate to have all of that support."

As Steve Martin's backup band for the last several years, The Rangers have tapped into a new audience. And it has been interesting for Sharp to play with another banjoist. "It's helped me as a player to think about playing in a different style. It's a challenge, but when it's going right it's a really good sound," he says. "I just try to fill out the sound like another rhythm instrument would, occasionally doing a twin banjo part doubling what he's doing, but for the most part playing rhythm."

Sharp thinks that stepping away from their own music and learning something different has helped the Rangers. "Steve's music is more folky, it's just quirky," he smiles. "It's his style and his songwriting, and I think it's helped us appreciate our own thing more when we get back to it.

"Steve's got great touch and timing, and he's a great composer. He plays and writes in a way that nobody else would. His sense of humor definitely informs his music, and also his sense of story and his sense of how you portray a character."

And, Martin can flat out rip on the banjo, according to Sharp. "He's one of the few people that I know who can actually just go full speed when he gets it out of the case," he says. "He doesn't make jokes about the banjo. He makes tons of jokes, but when it comes to the music he's very serious."

Martin brought in banjo legend Tony Trischka to produce Rare Bird Alert. "That was a treat," Sharp says. "Tony's a great player, and probably the best teacher out there. He's one of the kindest people you'd ever hope to meet. It was a pretty amazing experience to get to know him. I was definitely thankful to have that opportunity."

Steep Canyon Rangers recently finished recording its fifth album, at Echo Mountain in Asheville, tentatively titled Nobody Knows You and planned for release early in 2012. "We're not slowing down at all," Sharp says. "We'll be doing our own touring, and also be doing 50 or so shows with Steve. It's incredibly fun, and being able to go back and forth between the two of them is pretty wonderful."

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