Steep Canyon Rangers at Walker Theatre for "Out in the Open" tour.
Steep Canyon Rangers spotlight their own music Friday, then return March 8 to back Steve Martin, Martin Short
The Steep Canyon Rangers had been a band for some nine years and had released five albums when they met Steve Martin and were selected by the comedian/ banjo player to be his backing band on a tour to promote Martin’s bluegrass album, the 2009 release “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.”
A decade later, the collaboration is still going strong, with the Steep Canyon Rangers having done several tours with Martin and played on two more Martin albums – 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 timing to start working with Martin was ideal for his group. The 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 band on their own, but still in a place where an association with a big name like Martin would help them grow their audience – and not deflect too much attention away from their own career.
“I think if we had met him years later, it might not have been a good idea,” Guggino said “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 some- thing 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.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers continue to make albums and do their own shows between touring and recording commitments with Martin. The group has just released its 10th studio album, “Out in the Open,” and are spending this winter and spring playing a mix of their own headlining dates and shows. They also serve as backing band for Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short, whose show will stop in Memorial Auditorium March 8.
For “Out in the Open,” the group worked with a noted producer who isn’t from the bluegrass world: Joe Henry. Henry proposed a recording approach rarely used these days. He wanted the Steep Canyon Rangers to record completely live, including vocals, with no overdubbing.
Guggino said 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, and if somebody messes up, the whole take is gone,” he explained.
But it turned out to be an effective way to record the songs, capturing the energy and f ire of the group’s live show.
What also helps “Out in the Open” is that the band’s songwriting is strong throughout the dozen songs.
The album continues the Steep Canyon Rang- ers’ move toward a broader acoustic sound that, while rooted in bluegrass, draws from other genres. Highly melodic tunes like the easy- going “Farmers And Pharaohs” and “Roadside Anthems” are as much pop and Americana as any other genre. The title song, a harmonica-spiced track, leans oldtime country, and even songs that have a good bit of bluegrass (“Let Me Out Of This Town” and “Love Harder”) have r i cher melodies than one might expect in that genre.
Guggino said the band is so pleased with “Out in the Open” that they are playing the entire album during their headlining shows, while selections from their previous couple of albums fill out the rest of the set.
“Our style has changed so much over the last few years, kind of evolved to where it is now, we just want to play more of the newer stuff that sounds like that than the older stuff that doesn’t have that same kind of vibe going on,” Guggino said.
Steep Canyon Rangers will play their new album, “Out in the Open,” in full during their show in Walker Theatre on Friday night.