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Steep Canyon Rangers feel at home playing bluegrass

Fri., April 25, 2014

Just a few years before the folk- and bluegrass-heavy soundtrack to the 2000 comedy “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” became an unexpected smash, the Steep Canyon Rangers, a group of students from the University of North Carolina, had started playing bluegrass tunes at off-campus bars and parties.

“At that time, at least in North Carolina, it seems like there were a lot of young people listening to (bluegrass) all of a sudden,” said Mike Guggino, the band’s mandolin player. “The acoustic music thing was just really happening, and we kind of got swept up in that.”

Of all genres to gravitate toward, Guggino said he’s still not totally sure why the band chose bluegrass. “None of us grew up playing bluegrass, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’d never even listened to bluegrass until I got to college. … It was just by chance, really. I can’t really explain why it happened. It just did. All of a sudden, I just really started paying attention to the music and listening to it and just fell in love with it. We all did.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers, who bring their rustic sound to the Bing Crosby Theater next week, are now in their 15th year and have become one of the most prominent bluegrass bands in the country. Their eighth album, 2012’s “Nobody Knows You,” won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, and their most recent release, “Tell the Ones I Love,” peaked at No. 1 on the bluegrass charts.

Recorded at Levon Helm’s famous studios in Woodstock, N.Y., “Tell the Ones I Love” was produced by Larry Campbell, a legendary musician who has performed with Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris. Guggino described the album’s sound as leaning more toward Americana than traditional bluegrass, and it marks the first time the band has added a drummer to their lineup.

“We’ve added drums to old songs that didn’t have drums before, and it’s really brought those songs back to life,” Guggino said. “It really works live. If you’ve just heard our records, you might be surprised by the energy and spirit of (our shows).”

Although they’re acclaimed in their own right, the Steep Canyon Rangers are probably best known for their collaborations with comedian and banjo whiz Steve Martin, who put out his first all-musical album, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” in 2009.

The Rangers were longtime friends of Martin’s wife, writer Anne Stringfield, who introduced him to the band shortly after “The Crow” had been released. “His agent told him he needed a band to go on tour with,” Guggino recalled. “He said, ‘I only know one,’ and it happened to be us. It was just lucky.”

Following that first tour backing Martin, the Rangers got above-the-title credit on his 2011 album “Rare Bird Alert,” which would be their first No. 1 record. They also appeared on several tracks of “Love Has Come for You,” Martin’s 2013 collaboration with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell.

Neither Martin nor Brickell will be tagging along with the Rangers for this performance – Martin last played Spokane in 2011 – but this way you’ll get a clearer sense of the group’s dynamic.

“When we do a Steve Martin show, it’s all his songs,” Guggino said. “When we do our shows, we don’t do any songs he’s written. It’s cool because we’re kind of two bands right now,” he added with a laugh.

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