If bluegrass music has an equivalent to the relationship Bob Dylan enjoyed with the Band, it might be in the partnership that has developed between Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Dylan famously brought on the future members of the Band – originally known as the Hawks – to be his backing band on his 1965 and 1966 tours. He went electric with some of his show, sparking loud objections from some fans of his solo acoustic folk music. In 1967, Dylan and the Band began an extended writing and recording session that produced a legendary set of music that eventually emerged in 1975 on “The Basement Tapes” double album and a 2014 6-CD box set documenting more than 100 songs committed to tape during that time. Dylan and the Band then reunited in 1974 for an extensive tour that produced the live album, “Before the Flood.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers were a band for some nine years and released five albums before they met Martin. The comedian/banjo player selected them to be his backing band on a tour to promote Martin’s bluegrass album, the 2009 release “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.”
A decade later, the collaboration is still going strong. The Steep Canyon Rangers have done several tours with Martin and played on two more Martin albums – the latest of which is last year’s “The Long-Awaited Album.” Several members of the Rangers also played on “Love Has Come for You,” the album Martin and Edie Brickell released in 2013.
Looking back, mandolin player Mike Guggino said the timing with Martin was ideal for his group. The Steep Canyon Rangers – which also includes guitarist/singer Woody Platt, banjo player/singer Graham Sharp, fiddle player Nicky Sanders, drummer Mike Ashworth and new bassist Barrett Smith (replacing Charles Humphrey III) – were established enough in the bluegrass world to be seen as a viable band on their own but still in a place where an association with a big name like Martin would help them grow their audience – and not deflect too much attention away from their own career
“I think if we had met him years later, it might not have been a good idea,” Guggino said “But I think we met him just at the right time when we were popular enough and good enough to be able to do the gig and bring something to the table, but not so popular and whatever that it would have been a bad choice to not do our stuff. And it really did help boost our career, for sure. It put us in front of a larger audience. He got us on TV and big-time radio stations and really got our name out there. We definitely noticed a boost because of that, for sure.”
As the years have gone on and they’ve done more projects with Martin, the partnership has only deepened and Guggino said both the Rangers and Martin have brought talents to the table that have benefited both parties artistically.
On “The Long-Awaited Album,” Sharp and Humphrey III each have co-writing credits on a song, and the entire band was heavily involved in arranging the songs.
“I think the Rangers had as much to do with the arrangements, if not more, than Steve on every song,” Guggino said. “And that’s what’s so cool. He (Martin) trusts us. He trusts our ears and our tastes, and we work together very well and we come up with arrangements for these songs. It’s a great collaboration that way. I think our style and our aesthetic is aligned even more than it was when we started. So it’s really like a band now.”
Of course, the Steep Canyon Rangers also continue to make albums and do their own shows between touring and recording commitments with Martin. The group has just released their 10th studio album, “Out in the Open,” and are spending this winter and spring playing a mix of their own headlining dates and as backing band for Martin and fellow comedian/actor/singer Martin Short, who together bring a mix of comedy and music to the stage in these shows.
For “Out in the Open,” the group worked with a noted producer who isn’t from the bluegrass world and has worked with a stylistically diverse range of music acts – Joe Henry. Henry proposed a recording approach that is rarely used these days. He wanted the Steep Canyon Rangers to record completely live – including the vocals – with no overdubbing.
Guggino said the band knew that could be a challenge.
“You’ve got to get every solo, every little backup lick, every harmony vocal, and you all have to do it at the same time, and if somebody messes up, the whole take is gone,” he said.
But it turned out to be an effective way to record the songs.
“You know, it wasn’t as hard as we thought it was going to be, and the reason is we play together all the time,” Guggino said. “We’re such a live band, a touring band, we’re always touring. We tour all year round … We know each other so well and our tendencies and how we all think it’s going to feel, how we kind of push and pull together and it works. It makes sense. We even stood like we do on the stage. That’s how we stood around the microphones.”
The idea behind recording live, Guggino said, was to capture the fire, energy and emotion the Steep Canyon Rangers bring to their concerts. And he thinks “Out in the Open” is a very authentic representation of the group as a result.
What also helps “Out in the Open” is that the band’s songwriting is strong throughout the dozen songs. The album continues the Steep Canyon Rangers’ move toward a broader acoustic sound that, while rooted in bluegrass, draws from other genres. Highly melodic tunes like the easy-going “Farmers And Pharaohs” and “Roadside Anthems” are as much pop and Americana as any other genre. The title song, a deliberately paced, harmonica-spiced track, leans old-time country, while the lovely ballads “Going Midwest” and “Best Of Me” have a timeless country sound. And even songs that have a good bit of bluegrass (“Let Me Out Of This Town” and “Love Harder”) have richer melodies than one might expect in that genre.
The Spokane concert is one of a few shows with symphonies on the current Steep Canyon Rangers tour. If the show at all mirrors the headlining shows the group is playing, the song selections will be weighted toward “Out in the Open” material and other songs from the previous couple of albums (2015’s “Radio” and 2013’s “Tell The Ones I Love”), with only an occasional older song sprinkled into the set.
“Our style has changed so much over the last few years, kind of evolved to where it is now, we just want to play more of the newer stuff that sounds like that than the older stuff that doesn’t have that same kind of vibe going on,” Guggino said.
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