After some frenetic banjo picking on Friday, July 27, at the Cuthbert Amphitheater, Steve Martin decides it’s time for him to go Google himself offstage (“it’s been over 45 minutes,” he says) and let the Steep Canyon Rangers entertain for a song or two.
“Charles do you have a beer or something?” Martin says to bass player, Charles Humphrey III. Deadpan, Humphrey slides open a hidden wooden panel in his bass and pulls out a cool one for the comedian, who strides off stage, beer in hand, to a roar of applause and laughter from the crowd.
The Steep Canyon Rangers, including Humphrey (bass, vocals), Woody Platt (guitar, lead vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin, vocals), Nicky Sanders (fiddle, vocals) and Graham Sharp (banjo, vocals), began in the ‘90s as a college band in Brevard, N.C., where they got into bluegrass through New Grass Revival and Old and in the Way. In 2006, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) named the The Steep Canyon Rangers as Emerging Artists of the Year. By 2011, the Rangers and Martin collectively won the IBMA’s Entertainers of the Year award after collaborating on the album Rare Bird Alert.
For the well-mannered Rangers, collaborating with Martin for a bluegrass comedy tour was a rather smooth transition. “In the history of bluegrass, there’s always a goofball who did the comedy. Comedy was always a part of it,” says Sharp. “Lester Flatt was such a great MC and there’s a tradition to that. It’s not too much of a stretch.”
For a music genre that typically contains content about love lost or solitary hardships, a bluegrass band would have to have a particular sense of humor to play songs like “Jubilation Day,” about a playfully bitter break-up, or “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” And the Rangers do so with the discipline of Bill Munroe or Del McCoury. The harmonies on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” are so crisp and breathtaking that, no matter what your creed (this song received, by far, the rowdiest reception), it’s easy to see why these guys are one of the biggest names in modern bluegrass.
Nobody Knows You, the Rangers’ latest album, was released this spring and is noticeably more vocal heavy. “We took a few more chances on this record than maybe we have in the past,” says Sharp. “I think playing with Steve gave us a lot more confidence.”
The Rangers are planning to return to Eugene this March with the Nobody Knows You tour.
— Alexandra Notman