Earlier in the evening, the Steep Canyon Rangers played the headlining Watson Stage at MerleFest. No surprise appearance from Martin tonight. One cannot maintain any conversation about the band without mentioning Martin. In short, the band is longtime friends with Martin’s wife Anne Stringfield, and one night during a dinner party Martin and Stringfield were having, the Rangers were invited to sit in for an impromptu jam session. Martin and the Rangers clicked and kept in touch. The Rangers first joined Martin for a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion in 2009, then on Martin’s 2011 release Rare Bird Alert and joined him for a co-headlining tour. They return on Martin’s newest album Love Has Come For You, also featuring singer/songwriter Edie Brickell.
Although they have since grown accustomed to playing before larger and broader audiences, the Rangers were already a band-on-the-rise before Martin came calling.
“We’ve always been hungry,” says Sharp. Before the Grammy win for their original material on Nobody Knows You, the Rangers won the IBMA 2006 Emerging Artist of the Year Award for their 2005 album One Dime at a Time.
Platt agrees the hard work is paying off over the course of the group’s decade-plus career. “We’re definitely hungry. It might be easy to say we’ve gotten where we are because of Steve Martin if you’re just looking from the outside in. But if you think about it, we had a lot of nominations within bluegrass, and we had spent a lot of years playing clubs and developing our fanbase. So then we go play with Steve, and things start to grow and develop, and when we’re out on our own, like this, we want to live up to the expectations and we work really hard to do that. So far, I feel that’s happened.”
Guggino agrees with his bandmates. “If you get a break, a chance, somebody gives you opportunity to get a lot of exposure, that’s your chance to seize on that. You can either do your best to really take advantage, or get lazy, and not really capitalize on that. It’s really motivated us to work hard and try to be the best we can and prove who we are.”
Touring heavily with Martin over the past several years and performing in front of broader audiences also helped the Rangers with Nobody Knows You.
“It’s nice,” says Sharp. “While we’re on the road with Steve we have all this time during the day to work on the record. We were very focused on it as a band. Having worked with Steve, it gave us the opportunity to make music with a little broader appeal in mind, than without just having to worry about who’s going to classify in what category, and make some music we love.”
Sharp notes the progression of the Rangers has evolved along with the songwriting. Both he and Humphrey are the group’s primary songwriters.
“I feel our band has been a natural progression,” Sharp continues. “We’ve spent so much time in the early years focusing on learning Flatt & Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, and I think our writing really reflected that. I think, maybe over the years we’ve grown as individuals. It felt natural that the songs should grow that way.”
Humphrey cites learning from the masters in songwriting is crucial for one’s own progression. “I think getting it right with other writers, too,” Humphrey beams. “Traveling to different parts of the country, people want to write with you. They know you’re going to sell records, and learning from the masters like (Nashville songwriter) Shawn Camp, (Texas singer/songwriter) Guy Clark. Seeing the things that have trickled down through the writers of these generations, it opens up your style to just different styles of different directions of songs. It’s exciting to get a song that you believe in, and try to see how everyone else approaches it, too, and collaborate.
“I think early in our career,” says Guggino, “we hadn’t been a band long enough, or successful enough, or made enough recordings, to have a Steep Canyon Rangers sound, or style, and I think now we sort of have that. We all know what our band sounds like, and can sound like, and what our strengths are, and so I think these guys, when they’re writing songs, are thinking about that.”
The Rangers homegrown style is a nod to old school traditional bluegrass with a flair for the progressive, blending country, jazz, and rock elements into their sound. Crisp suits and ties, tight harmonies and virtuosos on every instrument complement their commanding stage presence. There’s a confident optimism in the group’s music, be it the perils of love, reputations to uphold, or the pride of an underdog, several of the themes found on Nobody Knows You.
“This is a band that was really built on friendship,” says Sharp. “I’m glad it’s reflected in the music. I think that’s something that makes us unique and makes us as a band, what we are.”
Guggino credits the band’s ‘Wild and Crazy’ collaborator with some enlightenment. “I think actually Steve Martin is the one that said you can’t play a banjo and not be happy. There’s something inherent about bluegrass music that even the saddest songs just sound so optimistic.”