As the 20th century approached its end, a group of college students began gathering informally to play bluegrass. None of them could have imagined that they’d still be together in 2018, performing concerts backed by members of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. In support of their 13th and latest album, Out in the Open, the Steep Canyon Rangers play the U.S. Cellular Center’s ExploreAsheville.com Arena on Saturday, Jan. 27.
It’s just one in a string of noteworthy events for the band. In October, the Rangers were formally inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Banjo player Graham Sharp says that the experience was mind-blowing. For a display at its Kannapolis facility, the hall had requested one of his instruments. “It was this old Sears guitar, barely holding together,” he says. “But if you stand in just the right place, you can see the guitar, and in the background is one of John Coltrane’s saxophones. And at that point, you’re just like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
Sharp and his bandmates — currently guitarist Woody Platt, mandolin player Mike Guggino, fiddler Nicky Sanders and percussionist Michael Ashworth — were moved to be honored by an institution that pays tribute to the state’s giants of music, a roster that includes James Taylor, Doc Watson and Nina Simone. “The breadth and depth of North Carolina music is just so staggering, from the mountains to the Piedmont to you-name-it,” Sharp marvels. “Whatever style, whatever era.”
The Hall of Fame induction recognizes the Steep Canyon Rangers’ part in that rich and ongoing musical tradition. “It’s a ridiculously crazy honor to be in there,” Sharp says, “but it’s also just a reminder of how great this state is for the music we love.”
Though nominally a bluegrass group, the Steep Canyon Rangers have never been slavish about coloring inside the lines of their chosen musical idiom. “Obviously, we cut our teeth on really traditional bluegrass,” Sharp says. “That’s where we got our start, but I think there are lots of traditional kinds of roots music that we love. Bringing in elements of different stuff — whether it’s blues, rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, or just some of the songwriters’ styles that we love — just feels natural.”
Sharp says that if there’s an overriding philosophy to the band’s approach to music, it’s this: “Let’s really serve the song. We find a song that we love and not try to shoehorn it into a particular style.”
The group’s open-minded approach means that elements of classical music can often be seamlessly worked into arrangements. And that’s what will happen when the Steep Canyon Rangers play their Asheville date the day after the official release of Out in the Open. Ten members of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra will join the group onstage for several songs. And, while the Rangers have augmented themselves with classical musicians before, this hometown show will be different. “We’ve never had a symphony out for a show where people will be standing, dancing and stuff like that,” Sharp says. “So that’ll be a new experience.”
In the early days in Chapel Hill, “It was just us hanging around, having a good time,” the banjo player recalls. “We were loving the music, and we just did it and did it.” But once they graduated, the original core set of musicians — Sharp plus Platt and upright bassist Charles R. Humphrey III (who left late last year) — focused more intently on making music.
The musicians collectively relocated to Asheville shortly thereafter. “We had a house up above the Charlotte Street Pub,” Sharp recalls. “I can’t believe the house is still standing … if it even is.”
But Asheville would serve mainly as a base for the group. “We went out to Colorado and won a band competition at a festival,” Sharp says. “And it was unlike anything I had ever imagined.” To date, the band has been recognized with two Grammy nominations, one of those (for the 2013 release Nobody Knows You) winning Best Bluegrass Album. In 2009, the Rangers began a musical relationship with comedian/actor/author/playwright/banjo player Steve Martin; world tours, high-profile television and festival dates and a string of recordings would follow. The third of those, The Long-Awaited Album, was released in September and soared to the top spot on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album chart.
Sharp considers himself fortunate to be in a group of musicians who are “in it together, moving in the same direction, and with very complementary talents. I couldn’t have drawn it up on a piece of paper [at the beginning],” he says, “but it’s worked.”
WHO: The Steep Canyon Rangers with members of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and River Whyless
WHERE: ExploreAsheville.com Arena, 87 Haywood St. uscellularcenterasheville.com
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 27, at 8 p.m. $30-$40