Here are three quick things to know right off the bat about Graham Sharp: He’s a family man, a Grateful Dead fan and a Tar Heel all the way, as in UNC Chapel Hill. He’s also a first-rate banjo player, songwriter and vocalist with the Steep Canyon Rangers, who are set to appear at ExploreAsheville Arena in Asheville’s US Cellular Center on Saturday.
Chapel Hill is where Sharp went to school, and where he met what would become the core group of the Rangers in the 1990s. Sharp played banjo, Woody Platt plucked the guitar and Charles Humphrey III jammed on the upright bass. It’s where the bandmates also first met Barrett Smith, who just joined Steep Canyon Rangers as Humphrey’s replacement. (Humphrey announced late last year that he was leaving the band to pursue other interests.) The line-up today includes Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin and Mike Ashworth on drums.
Taking time out of his busy schedule while home – picking his kids up from school, preparing for another recording Rangers recording session at Echo Mountain Studios – Sharp looked back at the Steep Canyon Rangers’ path to Saturday’s show, essentially a big album release party that will also feature about 10 members of the Asheville Symphony and Asheville’s River Whyless in support.
The first 10 years
The Rangers were complete outsiders when they first started, Sharp recalls.
The traditional bluegrass community is built on apprenticeships, he notes, and has specific elements that are essentially required: quartet singing, amazing instrumental expertise, a traceable lineage from past bluegrass greats.
“We were totally outside of that,” Sharp says. “We were outsiders, and we really had to work hard to get into that entire world.” The band worked for about 10 years on all those elements, “and by God we did it.” Bluegrass “is our DNA,” he adds.
About that same time, the chance for a musical collaboration arrived in the form of movie star, comedian and banjo player Steve Martin. The partnership with Martin has resulted in two albums, one Grammy nomination and a whole new level of public awareness.
Out In The Open
The Steep Canyon Rangers remain focused on making the best music they possibly can, Sharp says, but they’re ready to break free from convention.
On past efforts, the band was focused on making “these bluegrass records that are pristine and every harmony note is sung and re-sung,” Sharp says. But with Out In The Open, the Rangers worked with producer Joe Henry, whose approach focused on the band’s strength as a collective.
“A lot of the best stuff comes in the moment, playing off each other,” Sharp says. “There will always be people who play faster and sing higher, but our strength is our synergy, and I don’t really understand it, but people see it and respond to it.”
The approach of letting pieces fall into place and take shape organically left Sharp feeling gratified. “When you have someone say ‘Hey, what you’re doing, I believe in it, and this is how you’re best’ was great. I think we all just felt super empowered.”
Saturday’s big show
Graham says he’s headed into the Steep Canyon Rangers’ big Saturday arena show the same way he approaches all the band’s gigs. “I try to be super prepared for it. That’s the best cure for nerves.”
The show in the ExploreAsheville Arena of the US Cellular Center makes sense for the Steep Canyon Rangers. It’s the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau whose name is on the arena. The CVB has also paid to wrap the Steep Canyon Rangers’ bus to support the band and help spread the word about Asheville as a tourist destination.
The Asheville indie band River Whyless will support the Rangers, as will about 10 musicians from the Asheville Symphony. The Rangers recorded an album with the Asheville Symphony a couple of years ago.
Graham said the band has had fun crafting and pacing a show for such a big space. The band has worked with composer Jonathan Sacks to arrange the music they’ll be playing with the Asheville Symphony members. Sacks has worked on a number of film scores.
“It’s great. You just get this momentum going behind you,” Sharp says, adding that he can’t wait to hit the stage.
“Playing your hometown audience, you want to prove yourself even more.”
A few other fun facts about the Steep Canyon Rangers
-The Steep Canyon Rangers had their first show at Linda’s Bar and Grill in Chapel Hill. Sharp’s now wife attended that very first show.
-Sharp played soccer at UNC Chapel Hill.
-Sharp’s brother, Brandon Sharp, is executive chef at The Carolina Inn restaurant, Crossroads Chapel Hill.
-The Steep Canyon Rangers took their name from a beer they liked, Steep Canyon Stout.
-Platt and Guggino grew up together in Brevard.
-Each year, the Steep Canyon Rangers host their Mountain Song festival at the Brevard Music Center. This year marks the 13th edition of the show.
-Smith, a former member of the Asheville-based Town Mountain, played music regularly with Brevard singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth, who is married to Platt.