To the untrained ear, bluegrass tunes tend to run into each other, the patterns and loops of notes both picked and plucked can be a confusing barrage. That's not to say bands like this aren't accessible, you've just gotta be on your toes. The Steep Canyon Rangers are a phenomenal bluegrass sextet from North Carolina and your gateway drug to this distinctly American music. The two-time Grammy Award-winning band offers blinding accuracy with boundless energy. And there are jazz and rock 'n' roll elements that soften the seriousness for those new to the genre who want to take the plunge. The band has been to town twice, both times backing up Steve Martin. This trip is minus the funny man on the banjo, giving the Steep Canyon Rangers the opportunity to really shine.
In March, the band released "Test of Time," a duet with Edie Brickell recorded at Levon Helm's barn with famed producer Larry Campbell at the wheel.
City Newspaper spoke with SCR's mandolin player, Mike Guggino, about bluegrass, purity, Levon Helm, and Steve Martin. Here's what was said.
City: Of all the instruments in your lineup, what's one that's irreplaceable?
Mike Guggino: I would say that now none of our instruments are irreplaceable. Every instrument in our group is an integral part of our sound and style. We recently added a percussionist, Mike Ashworth, and we already feel as though he added a nuance to our band that we would never want to lose.
How do you classify your sound?
It is somewhere between Bill Monroe and The Band. We are a bluegrass band, but we also have a lot of other musical influences that have helped to define our sound over the years. When we started the band, we were coming from very non-traditional backgrounds in terms of bluegrass. We worked hard for years to have a very traditional sound. On more recent albums, we have allowed our songwriting and playing to reflect more of some of the musical influences we all grew up listening to and playing before the band started. Now we kind of mix the traditional with the non-traditional in a way that serves each song the best way possible.
Your influences are apparent for the most part. What are some influences in there that aren't as obvious?
Many of us played classical music and jazz growing up. Some of us were also in rock bands in high school and college. I think Jerry Garcia was one of the first banjo players many of us ever heard. We all listen to a variety of musical genres. All of these styles play a role in how we create music within our group.
To you, what is the greatest period in American music?
It seems like the decades immediately following WWII, American culture was changing so much. Music changed a lot, too, and many new styles of music were created, including bluegrass and rock and roll. That must have been an exciting time to be a musician.
How did you find Steve Martin, or did he find you?
We met at a party in North Carolina while he was vacationing there with his wife's family. It was just after he had recorded "The Crow" and he needed a band to tour with. We were literally in the right place at the right time.
Did you mind playing second fiddle to him?
Not at all. Steve is an amazing performer and we have learned so much from him about being on stage and creating a great show. He is very conscious about showcasing us or giving us a chance to be highlighted on every show. We are very grateful for all the things he has done over the last 5 years to promote the Steep Canyon Rangers.
What were the advantages and disadvantages of this collaboration?
I can't think of any disadvantages from this collaboration. Steve has put us on some of the biggest stages in the world. We have had exposure we would have never achieved at this point in our career.
Talk a little about the making of your latest record with Larry Campbell.
We had the honor of playing one of the last "Midnight Rambles" at Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock, New York. Levon mentioned after the performance that they had never recorded a true bluegrass band at his studio. We thought of no better place to create our next record. Of course one of the main benefits of making the record there was having Larry Campbell as our producer. He was the right producer at the right time, too.
We were wanting to incorporate some non-bluegrass elements, such as drums, on that record. Larry was really great at understanding how a bluegrass band functions on its own and how a drummer can fit into that in a unique way. It certainly changed the way I played rhythm on the mandolin. Many of his ideas about playing bluegrass mandolin rhythm with a drummer I still use today on our new material. He was generally full of great ideas for arrangements to our new songs that didn't necessary fit into one category musically.
How did you manage to maintain your live concert energy?
Adding percussion certainly has added energy and drive to our live show. We always have and always will take the stage with the intention of slaying the crowd.
Anymore collaborations down the pike?
We will continue to play shows with Steve Martin this year. Some of the shows we are doing with Steve this year are comedy shows with him and Martin Short. It's such a treat to watch those two legends go at it on stage.
The Steep Canyon Rangers will play Saturday, June 27, 4 p.m., in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street. Tickets are $30-$45. steepcanyon.com