Organic sound in a digital age

The Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers have played their way to the top of the bluegrass scene, with a little help along the way.

The founding band members of Steep Canyon Rangers were friends during their college days before starting a band. Nicky Sanders (second from right) joined the band with his fiddle in 2004 and they recently brought on a longtime friend, Michael Ashworth (not pictured), as a permanent member to play percussion.

David McClister

The founding band members of Steep Canyon Rangers were friends during their college days before starting a band. Nicky Sanders (second from right) joined the band with his fiddle in 2004 and they recently brought on a longtime friend, Michael Ashworth (not pictured), as a permanent member to play percussion.

Callie Sacarelos

Steep Canyon Rangers won the 2013 Grammy for best bluegrass album with their fifth record, “Nobody Knows You.”

Though the band was relatively unheard of when they began playing together about 14 years ago in North Carolina, a series of fortunate events led them to the forefront of the bluegrass music scene.

“We were just a college bar band playing for parties and local bars in Chapel Hill and Asheville, [N.C.],” mandolin player Mike Guggino said. “Then we graduated from college, and the music thing was all anybody really had going on, and we stuck with it.”

They won the International Bluegrass Music Association “Emerging Artist of the Year” award in 2006. Then their friend Anne Stringfield introduced them to comedian Steve Martin, who’s now her husband, at a party.

“We were friends with her before she even met him. It was just one of those chance things where she started dating Steve Martin and she introduced us,” Guggino said. “It just so happened he had made a record and was looking to go out on the road and we were the only band he knew. So we were at the right place at the right time.”

The collaboration led to a Grammy-nominated album, “Rare Bird Alert,” and the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Entertainer of the Year” award.

Although the band already proved they were a talented musical act in their own right, being on the same bill as Martin led to a performance at the White House, where they met the president and first lady. The Steep Canyon Rangers also performed at Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Bonnaroo and several popular bluegrass festivals.

“We’ve been lucky to be able to experience all of these great, top-levels gigs for our kind of music because of working with Steve,” Guggino said.

For their most recent album, “Tell the Ones I Love,” the band switched gears and producers. They recorded in the late Levon Helm’s home and studio, “The Barn,” in Woodstock, N.Y.

When they met Helm playing at one of his Midnight Ramble concerts at “The Barn” a few years ago, he told them no one had ever recorded a bluegrass album in his studio. He invited them to do it, but he passed away before they took up his offer.

“Still, the vibe and the whole experience of being at Levon’s was amazing,” Guggino said.

The band worked with producer and folk rock musician Larry Campbell, who toured with Bob Dylan for several years in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Guggino said the collaboration of their different backgrounds was like “two worlds meeting.”

“For him, it was probably the most traditional thing he had worked on as far as bluegrass goes,” Guggino said. “For us, it was probably the least traditional bluegrass thing that we’d ever done in the studio.”

The band had already toyed with unconventional musical elements, like using different chord progressions and song structures outside of traditional bluegrass standards.

For “Tell the Ones I Love,” drummer Michael Ashworth uses a box kit — a wooden percussion instrument that he plays with a kick drum pedal, brush sticks and mallets — to produce a more organic and acoustic tone. They don’t use snare or bass drums.

“We worked hard to learn that traditional bluegrass sound and use those instruments,” Guggino said. “I think we’re staying within the format but pushing the boundaries with the songwriting, arrangements, chord structures and things like that.”

Guggino said there are songs from past albums that they never play live, but on their current tour, they’ve been playing every song from the new album.

“I think this says a lot about this record,” he said. “We really like the sound, the style and the songwriting on this record.”

Fortunately for Steep Canyon Rangers and other bluegrass bands, instruments like mandolins, banjos and fiddles are showing up in pop music.

Americana bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers introduced larger audiences to a similar sound, and Minnesota-based Trampled By Turtles brought bluegrass to local radio.

“It’s been great for the music,” Guggino said. “People like seeing real musicians playing real instruments. There’s something cool about that in this digital age where everything is electronic.”

 

What: Steep Canyon Rangers with the Long Shots
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
Where: The Cedar Cultural Center, 416 S. Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $20-22