- SXSW 2014
Photo courtesy of Steep Canyon Rangers
Steep Canyon Rangers play the Harvest Music Festival this week.
North Carolina bluegrass group the Steep Canyon Rangers may be best known as the backing band for comedian, actor and banjo player Steve Martin, but on their own they have released a number of albums and have forged a career as one of the most respected bluegrass acts. Recently Music Editor Neil Ferguson caught up with Steep Canyon Rangers mandolin player Mike Guggino as the band prepares for their upcoming tour, which includes an appearance at the Harvest Music Festival in Ozark, Arkansas.
The latest record from the Steep Canyon Rangers, Tell The Ones I Love, which may be their most impressive, incorporates influences of country and Americana music into the band's bluegrass sound. The group worked with Grammy-winning producer Larry Campbell and recorded the album in the late Levon Helm's famed recording studio in Woodstock, New York.
Neil Ferguson: How did it go at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?
Mike Guggino: We played on Sunday. It was fantastic. The weather was perfect and the crowd was huge. The biggest day was Sunday they said, and we had a great set on Sunday afternoon.
Right now you're finishing up a tour with Steve Martin?
Yeah, we're out on the road on the West Coast with Steve.
What’s it like playing as a band with someone like Steve Martin who’s also a celebrity?
It's exciting for us because we get to play some pretty high quality shows. It's really fun getting to do things like TV shows and some of these really big stages, festivals, and headlining slots that we probably wouldn't have played on our own. That's really exciting and it's nice for us because we have our own band and our own music with our own show, but we get to kind of be two bands. We get to be the Steep Canyon Rangers and then we get this whole other show with Steve and Edie Brickell where it's all different songs and a whole different show.
On Tell The Ones I Love you worked with Larry Campbell in Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio. How did that come about?
That was such a great experience and it really came about from an invitation from Levon himself. We went up to one of the Midnight Rambles a few years ago just before Levon died. It was actually one of the last Rambles that Levon did. We played the show and it went great and we got to sit in with Levon and play "The Weight" with the band and Larry [Campbell]. Donald Fagen from Steely Dan was there [and] it was just an amazing night. After the show we went over and Larry said we should come talk to Levon for a little bit. We [went] and chatted with Levon for a minute and took some pictures and he said, ‘You know, we've never had a bluegrass band come up and record in the studio. If you guys are ever thinking about doing a record we'd love to have you up here.’ We thought [that sounded good] and we were scheduled to go up there and record, and [Levon] passed away shortly before that, so we didn't get to see him up there again, but the vibe was there. [The Barn] just [has] a great, warm feeling, it's all of this old wood, these big vaulted ceilings, and they have microphones everywhere and a big fireplace roaring. It's just a perfect recording environment. It was freezing cold because it was the dead of winter in Woodstock, New York. There was about a foot of snow on the ground, but we had the fire going. Larry [Campbell] is just a joy to work with. He doesn't stay up there behind the control booth sitting on the couch listening; he actually gets down on the floor. We were kind of set up in a circle playing with a live feel and everyone kind of going at the same time. Larry was just standing in the middle and coaching us on.
Did Larry bring anything to the table creatively that maybe the band wouldn't have locked into on your own?
Yeah, lots of stuff. One of the big things was, just based on the style of the songs, we knew we wanted to use drums on this record, and really use drums heavily for the first time on any of our records. We knew a great drummer named Jeff Sipe, who's played with tons of people; Phil Lesh and Friends, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams. Jeff's really well known in the jam band world. We wanted Jeff to be on the record and it turned out that Larry [Campbell] had worked with Jeff playing with Phil and Friends in the past, so they already had a relationship. So we brought Jeff up there to the studio and Larry was really good - because you know, we're a bluegrass band and we don't have a lot of experience playing with drums - Larry really had a lot of ideas about how the drums can work in with the arrangements of the songs. With these bluegrass songs maybe the drums don't function like a rock and roll band; it's got to play a different role and it's got to be a little more subtle in places, and Larry was really good about just making the drums seem like they fit in with the song and the style of our music really well.
I thought it was cool when I saw Jeff Sipe was involved with the album because he is just such a great drummer. What was it with this record in particular that made you feel like you needed to have drums on it?
It has a lot to do with the songwriting. I think with the last record, Nobody Knows You, the style of the songs were sort of heading that way. We used percussion on a few things on that record and some other instruments like piano and stuff that we hadn't used before. [With Tell The Ones I Love] we kind of wanted to take it a step further because we felt like the songwriting was sort of going in that direction where it wasn't just a standard bluegrass two-beat - like a more traditional bluegrass sound. There were a lot of different time changes and groove changes, maybe within one song. We felt that there were several songs that were like that and we just thought it would be nice to hear these songs that Graham [Sharp] and Charles [R. Humphrey III] were writing, and how they would come about if we actually had a drummer in the studio working out the arrangements with us. [It wasn't] like in the past where we would record drums and the studio guy would put in a bluegrass two-beat behind it or whatever. We wanted the drums to work in with the arrangements because it changed what we did. As a mandolin player in a bluegrass band what I do is sort of the percussive part of the beat and it changed a lot of what I did. It was really cool and Larry was really good at coming up with ideas of how the mandolin and the drums could work together and not just do the exact same thing. Sometimes drums in bluegrass can just be the mandolin doing what the drums do and vice versa and it's kind of boring, but it didn't have to be that way and I think it's cool some of the ideas Larry had about how they could compliment each other and maybe be syncopated.
One of my favorite tunes is “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken,” which features a steel guitar. How did the band decide a steel would fit in this song?
That was Larry's idea and that's him playing steel guitar. That song just has so much space, it's all about the lyrics and the harmonies and it's just got a real airy quality. He thought that the steel, with those really long notes, would tie it together beautifully, and I think it does. We don't have a Dobro player in our bluegrass band so the steel just works great, and it's maybe a little darker sound than you'd get from a Dobro.
Speaking of the steel guitar, the songwriting on the album feels more in the alt. country/Americana vein. I know you didn’t write any of the lyrics on the album, but can you shed some light on where the lyrical storytelling is coming from?
I'd say all us listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and Graham [Sharp] and Charles [R. Humphrey III] listen to a lot of Americana and country music. I know they love that stuff like Gram Parsons and [music] like that. They're influenced by that kind of music and I think that's affected their songwriting. That's just kind of the style they write in, and I don't think either one of them are trying to write in a certain style or direction, or be less bluegrass or more bluegrass. I think they're just writing songs and that just happens to be what they sound like. They also write towards the strengths of our band; we don't really have that high lonesome old school traditional sound, at least with our vocals, we don't sing like Ralph Stanley or Bill Monroe.
Going back to Larry Campbell. In your bio I read that Larry Campbell was attracted to how the band respected bluegrass without getting constrained by its conventions. Is this a conscious philosophy of the band?
No, I don't think it is. I think early on we were trying to be constrained by conventions as much as possible because we were trying to learn the music. When the band first started and when we really started doing it professionally we were trying to have a traditional bluegrass sound. We were all really studying the old music, you know, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, we were really learning that music note for note and trying to learn how the harmonies worked. But we were always writing our own music too, and probably our early songwriting looked more like [the conventional] style of bluegrass, but I think as time went on we learned that there are so many bands and bluegrass musicians doing that, and if we really wanted to set ourselves apart we should have our own style and play our own music. We all had grown up not listening to bluegrass and playing other kinds of music, and we decided to let all of those influences maybe come into play and to not be afraid to change the sound of things or the song structure. It doesn't have to go first chorus, solo every single song, or you could do something in a different time signature or tempos or add other instruments. We started to feel more comfortable playing with the bluegrass format as we got more successful in the business, made a few records with that traditional sound, and [then] wanted to branch out a little bit.
Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Festival takes place October 17-19 in Ozark, Arkansas
For tickets and additional info check out yonderharvestfestival.com
READ: 5 Reasons To Go To Harvest Fest!
Check out our INTERVIEW with Yonder Mountain String Band frontman Jeff Austin!
Check out our REVIEW and PHOTO GALLERY from the 2012 Harvest Music Festival!
Harvest Festival 2013 Lineup
Yonder Mountain String Band
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang
JJ Grey and Mofro
Justin Townes Earle
Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien
Steep Canyon Rangers
Hot Buttered Rum w/ Allie Kral
Delhi 2 Dublin
The California Honeydrops
The Dirty River Boys
Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds
Kopecky Family Band
Ha Ha Tonka
Andy Frasco and the U.N.
Head for the Hills
Hot Club of Cowtown
Star & Micey
Mike Dillon Band
The Delta Saints
Roadkill Ghost Choir
Kris Lager Band
The Deadly Gentlemen
She’s A Keeper
Wood & Wire
Deep Fried Pickle Project
Sarah Hughes Band
Red Clay Revival
Weakness for Blondes
Ice Cold Fatty
Sam and the Stylees
Cold River City