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 veteran comedian and actor Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers.
Dylan famously brought on the future members of The Band (originally known as the Hawks) to be his backing group on his 1965 and 1966 tours when he plugged in and went electric for part of his show, a move that sparked loud objections from some fans of his solo acoustic Folk music. In subsequent years, the pairing became regarded as one of Rock music’s classic partnerships.
The Steep Canyon Rangers had been a group for some nine years and had released five albums when they met Martin and were selected by the comedian/banjo player to be his backing band on a tour to promote his 2009 Bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.
A decade later, the collaboration is still going strong. The Rangers have now done several tours with Martin and played on two of his records, 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 band’s first work with Martin was ideal timing. 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 group on their own. But they were still in a place where an association with a big name like Martin would help them grow their audience without deflecting too much time and attention away from their own career.
“I think if we had met (Martin) years later, it might not have been a good idea,” Guggino says. “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 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.”
As the years have gone on and they’ve done more projects with Martin, the partnership has only deepened. Guggino said both the Rangers and Martin have brought things to the table that have benefited both parties artistically. On The Long-Awaited Album, Sharp and Humphrey III have co-writing credits, 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 says. “And that’s what’s so cool. He trusts us. He trusts our ears and our tastes and we work together very well. It’s a great collaboration that way. I think our style and our aesthetic is aligned even more than it was when we started.”
Of course, Steep Canyon Rangers also continue to make albums and do their own shows between touring and recording commitments with Martin. The group just released its 10th studio album, Out in the Open, and are playing a mix of their own headlining dates and shows where they serve as backing band for Martin and fellow comedian/actor Martin Short, who bring a mix of comedy and music to the stage.
For Out in the Open, the group worked with Joe Henry, a noted producer who isn’t from the Bluegrass world. Going into the recording, 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 says 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,” he says. “And if somebody messes up, the whole take is gone.”
But it turned out to be an effective way to record the songs.
“It wasn’t as hard as we thought it was going to be, and the reason is we play together all the time,” Guggino says. “We’re such a live band — a touring band, we’re always touring. 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 (in the studio).”
The idea behind recording live, Guggino says, was to capture the fire, energy and emotion the Steep Canyon Rangers bring to their concerts, and he thinks Out in the Open turned out to be a very authentic representation of the group as a result. What also helps is that the band’s songwriting is strong throughout the album. Out in the Open 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 easygoing “Farmers And Pharaohs” and “Roadside Anthems” are as much Pop and Americana as any other genre. 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.
Guggino says the band is so pleased with Out in the Open that they are playing the entire album during headlining shows.
“This is the first album that I think we’ve ever released where we play every single song from the record in the show, which is pretty cool,” Guggino says. “I think that has a lot to do with the way we recorded the record.”
For the current shows with Martin and Short, though, the Steep Canyon Rangers play a more supportive role.
“It’s a comedy show with those two guys doing their thing,” Guggino says. “But what we do is really impactful. I think it’s really impactful for the audience to all of a sudden see Steve up there playing the banjo, and not just playing the banjo, (but) tearing it up.”
“They give us the chance to showcase our stuff on a pretty hot little number, and that usually gets the crowd to its feet,” he adds. “Marty and Steve like to joke that it’s the only standing ovation that happens during the whole show — and they’re not on stage.”
Steep Canyon Rangers perform with Steve Martin and Martin Short May 27 at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.