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

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALAN SCULLEY COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.

PHOTO BY SHELLY SWANGER

Steep Canyon Rangers will play their new al­bum, “Out in the Open,” in full dur­ing their show in Walker The­atre on Fri­day night.

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