“We tried for years to sound like our favorite bluegrass bands,” says Steep Canyon Rangers banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp. “It just always ended up sounding like us.
“That’s turned into a real asset — when we do things that are new or different, that’s what our fans expect.”
Steep Canyon Rangers have come a long way since 1999, when Sharp, guitarist/vocalist Woody Platt, and bassist Charles Humphrey led marathon jam sessions in their dorm rooms at UNC-Chapel Hill. After graduating and moving to the mountains, they formed SCR, and have released 10 albums, including 2012’s Grammy-winning Nobody Knows You. They recorded another Grammy winner, the 2011 disc Rare Bird Alert, backing banjo player and iconic comedian Steve Martin, earning an Entertainer of the Year award with Martin from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
The group has a new record on Rounder titled Radio, and this month they’re hosting their 10th annual, three-day Mountain Song Festival, a benefit for the Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County. (When they’re off the road, band members live in Asheville and in Brevard.)
“Even in the beginning, when we were a fairly traditional bluegrass band, there were things different about us. Adding little surprises, knowing how to keep what’s vital to our presentation in the music, but also injecting other influences that are important to us as musicians and individuals,” Sharp explains. “I’m a blues guy, but I also like experimental electric stuff. Woody’s a big reggae guy — he’s probably listening to reggae right now, wherever he is. Mike Guggino is heavily into Italian folk music on the mandolin. [Fiddler] Nicky [Sanders] studied music at Berklee, and all of us like rock and roll.
“We don’t feel like we have to shoehorn anything into bluegrass,” he adds. “At this point, bluegrass is in our DNA, and that’s going to be the fingerprint on everything we do.”
According to Sharp, the Grammy wins have improved the band’s “general trajectory,” meaning better gigs, headlining slots, and a high level of performance. “We’re pretty consistent,” he says. “We’ve got our show to a level where even on an off night, it’s still pretty good. We try to enjoy ourselves as much as possible, and if that’s possible, it’s a sign that things are going well.”
That chemistry translates into the recording studio, as well — percussionist Mike Ashworth joined them for Radio on cajón, a type of South American drum. “Mike has a real sense for the music that we’re doing and what fits, and it was good to have somebody fresh involved with the arrangements,” Sharp says. “That was big for the group, focusing on the groove for each song first.”
Sharp is the group’s main songwriter, although they all get involved. “The band is good at finding one or two things that really grab the attention and focusing in on that, expanding on that, making it more of a focal point in the song. That’s where the band takes over and composes the song.”
He recalls thinking the title track, “Radio,” could live up to its name and become a mainstream-radio hit. It kicks off with a big musical hook played by Sanders, and the lyrics reference a double tape deck, Sunday school, young love, and the sentimental feeling evoked when hearing that compressed signal on the airwaves: “And when I wanna get back I turn it up loud, and I’m ready to go.”
“It’s really an homage to falling in love with music,” says Sharp. “I was inspired by an old mixtape that I found lying around my house that my brother made probably 20 years ago, when we were kids — found it in a pile of stuff one day, and that song was waiting there.”
“Simple is Me” was inspired by the humor in John Hartford’s music. “Obviously, I like songs that are serious and deal with serious subjects, but I feel like you can come off that every once in awhile,” Sharp says. “I really wanted this record to be a little lighter in moments.”
Sharp wrote “Blow Me Away” during their tour with Martin and Edie Brickell, which included an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
“Something that we took from working with Steve was honing in on ways to add more voices and be more diverse in the way we use our voices. ‘Blow Me Away’ and ‘Radio’ are songs that expose different voices,” explains Sharp. “There are five people singing on those songs at once. That’s fun to do, and adds a dramatic element to our music that we’re trying to build on.”
A Comparative Literature major at UNC, Sharp likes to use Southern imagery in songs like “Blue Velvet Rain.” “Songs need that sense of place, and need to combine the sound of the music with this part of the world in particular. It goes hand-in-glove. A lot of my favorite music is built around that, almost a mythology of certain places.”
Radio was recorded at Echo Mountain in Asheville, with legendary Nashville session ace Jerry Douglas producing. “We knew his reputation as a guy who’s been to the top of the mountain as far as bluegrass goes, and had a big foot outside of bluegrass as well. That’s what drew us to him the most.”
Douglas gets the band to make a tricky, intricate intro, like the one on “Down That Road Again,” sound easy. “That was one of Jerry’s production touches. He said, ‘Just give me this section, and I’m really going to make something out of it.’ I don’t think any of us knew what to expect, but it’s beautiful, and it works really well. It gives the record a minute to breathe.
“Jerry turned out to be a fun presence in the studio, a very upbeat, positive guy. He threw a few ideas at us that I don’t think we would have naturally arrived at, but when the mixes came back, it was like ‘Okay, this was the right call.’”
Mountain Song Festival
Brevard Music Center
The Mountain Song Festival has raised more than half a million dollars for the Cindy Platt Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County, named in honor of the late mother of Steep Canyon Rangers guitarist/vocalist Woody Platt. “It was originally her idea to put on a festival supporting the Boys & Girls Club, so it’s a cause that’s near and dear to our hearts,” says Graham Sharp. “We just put on the best music we can, and the community support has been great.”
This year’s lineup includes Ricky Skaggs, Town Mountain, The Larry Keel Experience, Red Wine, Sarah Siskind, Shannon Whitworth, Del McCoury Band, and Milk Carton Kids. “As the host of the festival, we can introduce our fans to some of our favorite stuff,” says Sharp.
Visit mountainsongfestival.com for tickets and information.