march 2012

Steep Canyon Rangers (from left): Mike Guggino (mandolin), Graham Sharp (banjo), Woody Platt (guitar,vocals), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), Charles Humphrey III (bass). ‘There was a sense with the band that this record would get more attention than any we’d done in the past, so we wanted to be sure we were well prepared,’ says Sharp of the Rangers’ new album, Nobody Knows You.

Everybody Knows You

Following an exciting year with Steve Martin the Steep Canyon Rangers return on their own, better than ever, and better known than ever. Checking in with the new ambassadors of bluegrass.

By David McGee

When the Steep Canyon Rangers came to New York City last year, it was with Steve Martin in tow. The expected sell-out crowd packed Joe’s Pub to the rafters, and witnessed a wonderful show (documented in our April 2011 third anniversary issue) in support of Martin and the Rangers’ terrific Rare Bird Alert album.

nobodyWhen the Rangers returned to Joe’s Pub late last month, it was not with Steve Martin but on their own, with a strong new album, Nobody Knows You, due for release on April 10. Even without the big star Martin, Joe’s Pub was packed, a sure sign of the quintet’s solid footing in the New York City market in the wake of its regular visits here the past few years. But the night had its own little attendant drama, in that the band arrived on stage the day after the death of Earl Scruggs. Like Scruggs, the Rangers all hail from North Carolina, are all bluegrass players, and can point to their own Graham Sharp as being the latest in the Tar Heel State’s rather awesome history of gifted banjoists.

For those who arrived early to Joe’s Pub and had to stand in line as the crowd dispersed following another act’s earlier show, the Steep Canyon Rangers set actually began in the hallway outside the dressing room door, where the crowd was waiting. Suddenly, amidst random sounds of instruments being tuned, Sharp’s banjo cut loose, clear and ringing into the hallway outside and beyond, with a vigorous romp through Scruggs’s monumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” It was, of course, impeccably played; and true to the Rangers’ style, feeling, not simply technique, drove it. Shortly into the set proper, Sharp noted Scruggs’ passing as well as referencing his home state’s banjo history (he appropriately gave a shout-out to “Snuffy” Jenkins, one of the early proponents of a three-finger style that Earl took to considerably more exalted heights), but instead of breaking into another round of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” he and ace fiddler Nicky Sanders paid homage to the deceased banjo giant by sprinting through “East Tennessee Blues.”

At the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Feb. 17, 2012, the Steep Canyon Rangers perform ‘East Tennessee Blues.’ At Joe’s Pub in New York City, playing the night after Earl Scruggs’ death, the band dedicated the song to their fellow North Carolina banjo great.

By and large, though, the night was devoted to showcasing tunes from the new album, the first point to be made about which is that it marks a solid advance in the original songwriting of Graham Sharp (who contributes seven songs) and bassist Charles Humphrey III (three songs), with mandolinist Mike Guggino offering a cool instrumental, “Knob Creek,” and the fellows dipping into the deep well of Tim Hardin songs for a cover of “Reputation.” The Sharp and Humphrey III songs are distinguished by their lyrical flow and contemporary sensibilities—no murder ballads or rustic backwoods yarns here, but rather vivid explorations of betrayals, deceits, self-doubt, turbulent romances and, certainly, the power of love as a healing force, all very au courant as topics. Though they have plenty of country in them, these Rangers are North Carolina U.-educated gents, literate, articulate, insightful and thoughtful in song and in conversation. They live modern lives, with modern conveniences, not down in the holler or up in the hills bereft of civilizing forces such as plumbing and electricity (and broadband). The Punch Brothers are out there on the progressive edge battling in their lyrics with all manner of urban neuroses and insecurities; the Rangers, hewing to tradition in their style and even in their spiffy attire, sing more of everyday travails confronting, you might say, the 99 percenters. Humphrey III’s mandolin- and fiddle-driven “Natural Disaster,” dark and doom-laden, equates true love with Mother Nature’s foul moods; the hard-charging, banjo-fired album opener, Sharp’s keening “Nobody Knows You,” wails over a feckless spouse observed to be “always the wind and never a wife,” a notion the awesome fiddler Nicky Sanders underscores with a furious, aggrieved solo. Sharp’s finest hour as a songwriter occurs with “Ungrateful One,” a son’s painful recounting of a father who sees his son as a burden robbing him of his freedom and his youth, a story inspired by (and spinning off a slightly reworked first line of) Look Homeward Angel, the autobiographical first novel of fellow North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe, published in 1929. As a take on the relationship between the domineering father Oliver Gant and his son Eugene, told from the son’s bittersweet perspective, it’s an unforgettable moment, with unsparing descriptions of the father’s self-absorption and how it damaged his own flesh and blood, told as only a student of comparative literature, as Sharp was in college, can tell it.

Steep Canyon Rangers at the Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, TN, January 14, 2012, with Graham Sharp and Woody Platt sharing lead vocals, perform Sharp’s song ‘Ungrateful One.’ The song is inspired by the Thomas Wolfe novel, Look Homeward, Angel, and tells the story of the self-absorbed father Oliver Gant from the point of view of his damaged son, Eugene.

That songs such as “Natural Disaster” and “Ungrateful One” have such power is due in part to each one’s compelling narratives, as well as to their powerful arrangements. But the man selling the songs, dazzling and moving the crowd at Joe’s Pub, is guitarist-vocalist Woody Platt. Tall, sturdily built, curly-haired, mild mannered and soft spoken, Platt has always been an effective vocalist, but on this night, and on this new album, he’s taken his art to a higher level, singing with his usual authority but also with riveting soulfulness, savvy phrasing and a sense of dramatics and dynamics he approached on Rare Bird Alert and on 2009’s Deep in the Shade. The former didn’t offer him many opportunities as a vocalist, but Deep In the Shade did, and it signaled a greater comfort level, and a willingness to venture into some raw feelings he seemed to shy away from, or considered tentatively, on earlier albums. This is a matter of degree, mind you, because the Rangers’ 2007 album, Lovin’ Pretty Women, is pretty darn good in all respects as well; the two before that, 2002’s Mr. Taylor’s New Home and 2004’s The Steep Canyon Rangers, did their job in signaling the arrival of a fresh sensibility in the traditional bluegrass world, along with masterful players. Nobody Knows You just happens to be a moment of maturity for the Rangers, and Platt’s plunge into the vivid, unambiguous ache of some of Humphrey III’s and Sharp’s lyrics signaled a desire to engage listeners in mind and body both, as attested to by the mesmerized Joe’s Pub audience. At the same time, some Rangers staples remain firmly in place: Guggino’s “Knob Creek” instrumental (which the band revisits on the new album after first cutting it on Mr. Taylor’s Home) is a barnburner that gives the players a chance to strut their stuff; Wayne Maynard’s “I Can’t Sit Down” provides a gospel respite in sweet four-part harmony with Sharp demonstrating a two-finger banjo style; and, always the big highlight of a Rangers set, fiddler Nicky Sanders energizing the crowd with his extended, muscular, virtuosic soloing on “Orange Blossom Special,” during which he quotes variously from the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” from Dmitri Kabalevsky’s “The Comedians,” and he may well have thrown in a taste of a couple more classical compositions that had not surfaced in his other NYC appearances.

At the end of it all, we would be bold to ask, “Steve who?”

We caught up with Graham Sharp via email, while he was vacationing with his family at Disney World. He took advantage of family nap times to answer a few questions about the Rangers’ new album, his songwriting, and the upshot of their collaboration with Steve Martin.

Graham Sharp: ‘Melodically, it’s more of a challenge to bring something new to bluegrass. So I write different tunes that aren’t necessarily bluegrass and leave it to the band to give it that sound.’ (Photo posted at Banjo Hangout)

In the wake of Earl Scruggs’s death a lot is being written about the long tradition of important banjo players North Carolina has produced. Why do you think the state has been home to so many banjoists, even beyond Earl, who have exerted such a wide influence on bluegrass and roots music styles?

I really don't know what it is about banjo players from NC that makes them so special. Maybe it's just a very regional phenomenon, born from a period when local music was more or less the only music you could hear. I think the time and the place was right that these developments starting happening fairly quickly; Snuffy Jenkins, among others, was developing the three finger style and only shortly thereafter did Don Reno and more famously Earl pick up on it and perfect it.

What were your thoughts upon hearing of Earl’s passing?

Historically, Earl would have to be among the 10 most influential instrumentalists America has known. For all that, he was unbelievably humble and gracious. The first time I got to meet him, he started peppering me with questions about my banjo and was kind enough to answer some of my own questions. I will never separate the music from the gentleman I met that day.

The Rangers have worked with Gary Paczosa before, and he’s the credited producer on this album. What did he do that was most important in helping the band realize its vision for this album?

We had a lot of confidence in Gary coming into the record and felt he’d tell us straight up what worked and what didn’t.  There are some songs here that are unlike anything we’d done before, so having Gary there gave us some reassurance that we were on a good track, and when we were not. Gary understood what makes us different from other bluegrass bands and didn’t try to fit us into some other mold.

Steep Canyon Rangers perform Charles Humphrey III’s ‘Natural Disaster,’ from the new album Nobody Knows You. At the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, February 17, 2012.

You were coming off a huge album with Steve Martin--#1 out of the box—and a tour that surely put your music in front of a lot of fans who may not have heard it before. What were the benefits to the band of “the Steve Martin year”?

Working with Steve certainly gave us much wider media exposure than almost any other bluegrass band has experienced. We had the opportunity to be a lot of peoples’ first experience with bluegrass, which we take as an honor and responsibility.

When you and your mates started talking about doing a new album, was there a collective sense that more was at stake owing to the higher profile you’d achieved as a result of the association with Steve?

There was a sense with the band that this record would get more attention than any we’d done in the past, so we wanted to be sure we were well prepared.

Some of your long-time fans are going to recognize Charles’s ‘Knob Creek’ from your second album, 2002’s Mr. Taylor’s Home. It’s not unusual for artists to revisit older material—B.B. King has cut ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ about four times at different stages of his career—but those songs almost always have lyrics, and the reason behind the revisitation is a new perspective on the lyrics’ meaning the artist has gained in time. But “Knob Creek” is an instrumental. Which, to be fair, has its emotional components. But is there any grand design behind its resurfacing on Nobody Knows You?

Mike wrote “Knob Creek” several years ago, and we recorded it way back then. It wasn’t until Nicky joined the band some years later that it became a song we played on stage. He brings a lot of energy and virtuosity to it, and I think the dynamics come through on this version. It’s one of the crowd favorites and we felt it was a good time to bring it out of the dark, so to speak.

A live radio performance of Charles Humphrey III’s ‘Rescue Me,’ from the album Nobody Knows You

You studied comparative literature in college, and as a fellow southerner I understand all too well the storytelling tradition of our part of the country. That said, I note in many of your original songs—these news ones as well as earlier ones—a fair dose of despair, some self-doubt, suspicions of deceit, remorse and, to be sure, reaffirmation of love. To name but a few themes. Restricting our conversation to the new songs, are they the product of imagined scenarios, the storyteller at work? Or do they arise from real feelings you’re experiencing, even if fleetingly? Or some combination of the two? In short, what drives you as a songwriter? What makes a song work for you?

For me, what’s most important in a lyric is an emotional connection. If it makes me laugh or cry that’s usually a good sign. I usually base a lyric around a single line that for me has the seed for the song. Melodically, it’s more of a challenge to bring something new to bluegrass. So I write different tunes that aren’t necessarily bluegrass and leave it to the band to give it that sound. “Nobody Knows You” started with a chorus with a very different meaning and didn’t really take shape until I actually knew what the song should be about. “Open Country” sort of just fell into place in a hotel room in Tulsa on what was my son’s first day of kindergarten.

One aspect of your and Charles’s songwriting that I really admire and respect is the degree to which you follow the best advice any writer can give to another writer: “Write what you know.” And what you know is how life feels in this day and age. Certain matters of the heart seem never to change, but your very literate songs are clearly the product of your own time—they’re not set in backwoods locales far removed from civilization, they’re not rustic in feel, they’re not coming from some twilight zone of memory but are very rooted in the present in terms of their language and attitudes. Donna Hughes is another younger bluegrass singer-songwriter who writes in this vein. I don’t know that there’s a question here but I’d like to get your thoughts on how the Rangers view their place and purpose in contemporary bluegrass, because obviously in some ways you’re very tradition minded—as in the presentation of the music--and in others very progressive (see above).

We certainly try to sing about things we understand, and never growing up in a cabin, it makes little sense to sing about this. I think that for bluegrass to stay relevant it needs some updated themes that still contain the flavor and tradition of the music.  That said, singing about a contemporary topic with bluegrass music behind it, gives the lyric more of a time-tested feel.

Fiddler Nicky Sanders’s show stopping solo on the Rangers’ version of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ incorporates the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ (at the 5:29 mark), Dmitri Kabalevsky’s ‘The Comedians’ (6:13, 6:55), possibly the Dark Shadows theme and other quotable musical quotes. At the Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA, Sept. 24, 2011. Video posted at YouTube by ChesterBSimpson

How did the Tim Hardin song “Reputation” get into the mix for this album?

The Tim Hardin track came from an off cut from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album.  It’s a fun quartet to sing.

Would you agree that Woody has taken his singing to another level? I thought his performances at Joe’s Pub were exceedingly powerful and soulful, more so than I’ve ever heard from him before, and of course he delivers that on the album as well. He’s really raised his game in the vocal department.

Woody’s singing has definitely gone up a few notches. I think it may be a combination of the confidence from doing a lot of big shows with Steve and having material that suits him better.

Finally, I noted that the crowd at Joe’s Pub, even in its new configuration, was comparable to what you drew last year when you were there with Steve Martin. These people were packing the place to see the Rangers. That has to feel good, like all the work is paying off.

We’ve worked hard to keep our own thing going while developing our show with Steve. Our trajectory has been good before, but recently has certainly gotten a boost. We’re all proud of how far we’ve come and are excited to keep pushing forward.

The Steep Canyon Rangers’ Nobody Knows You  is available at

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