The Steep Canyon Rangers come to the ExploreAsheville.com Arena on Saturday, January 27th at 8pm with members of the Asheville Symphony and River Whyless. Tickets go on sale Friday, September 15th at 10am and will be available through the USCC Box Office, online at Ticketmaster.com, and by phone at 800-745-3000. VIP upgrades are available and include a signed poster and access to exclusive cash bar & viewing area, located under section 224. Important note: VIP add-on does not permit entry to the show. All VIP add-ons must be accompanied by a regular price ticket. Please call the box office at 828-259-5736 with any questions about VIP details prior to purchasing
STEEP CANYON RANGERS
OUT IN THE OPEN
Michael Ashworth: vocals, percussion, guitar, mandolin
Michael Guggino: vocals, mandolin, mandola
Charles R. Humphrey III: bass
Woody Platt: vocals, guitar
Nicky Sanders: fiddle, piano
Graham Sharp: vocals, banjo, guitar, harmonica
With OUT IN THE OPEN, Steep Canyon Rangers affirm their place as one of the most versatile and idiosyncratic bands in all of contemporary American music. The GRAMMY® Award-winning, North Carolina-based sextet has spent nearly two decades bending and shaping the bluegrass aesthetic, wedding it to elements of pop, country, folk rock, and more to create something original and all their own. OUT IN THE OPEN is perhaps Steep Canyon Rangers’ bravest excursion thus far, transcending bluegrass while in many ways getting closest to the genre’s true form thanks to producer Joe Henry’s very traditional approach towards recording.
Having long had “one foot in bluegrass and one foot out of bluegrass,” according to SCR singer/guitar player/co-founder Woody Platt, the self-described “Americana string band” further pushed at the genre’s parameters by veering from the customary instrumentation. The time-honored banjo is eschewed in lieu of fingerstyle guitar on a number of songs while the inclusion of drums and harmonica bring surprising rhythm and texture to album highlights like “The Speed We’re Traveling” and the excellent title track.
“Making this album was really liberating,” says banjo player/songwriter/co-founder Graham Sharp. “We were able to say, hey, let’s take everything we’ve got and throw it against the wall. Lo and behold, it’s a whole new world.”
Steep Canyon Rangers have been expanding the parameters of bluegrass since coming together in 2000. Since then, the genre-defying band has developed a remarkable catalogue of original music – predominantly co-written by Sharp and bassist Charles R. Humphrey III – that links them to the past while at the same time, demonstrates their ambitious intent to bring string-based music into contemporary relevance.
With that goal in mind, Steep Canyon Rangers have in recent years begun collaborating with some of Americana’s most distinctive producers, working with top studio hands like Larry Campbell (2013’s TELL THE ONES I LOVE) and Jerry Douglas (2015’s RADIO) to take newfangled routes in crafting their ever-evolving approach. OUT IN THE OPEN sees the band teaming up with Joe Henry, an accomplished singer-songwriter as well as a 3x GRAMMY® Award-winning producer (Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Carolina Chocolate Drops) with a particular affinity for American roots music.
“We had one phone call and I was just taken,” Platt says. “Joe’s one of the most eloquent, thoughtful people you’ll ever meet. The conversation was deep, real fast. Music is spiritual to him. So his old soul coupled with his experience, it just made a lot of sense.”
In July 2017, Steep Canyon Rangers arrived at Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville, NC, an intimate studio facility built, owned, and operated by legendary producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Let’s Active). Having not previously discussed Henry’s plans, the band were surprised to discover that their producer – with the invaluable help of engineer/mixer Jason Richmond – intended to record in classic fashion, with all six members singing and playing in a room with no overdubs. Though Steep Canyon Rangers had some trepidation, they promptly rose to the challenge.
“We’ve recorded in a circle before,” Platt says, “but with baffles and other ways to isolate yourself. This record, if I stepped six inches to my left, I’d bump into the mandolin player. Six inches to my right, I’m bumping into the banjo player. Our microphones were all over each other, if you turned off my vocal mic, I was in twelve other ones. So really there was no way to fix anything, just like our live show.”
Indeed, OUT IN THE OPEN was recorded completely live, with “not one overdub,” says Platt. “Not one vocal, not one instrument.” The organic process allowed SCR to work faster than ever before, tracking a dozen songs in just three-and-a-half fertile days. Tracks were jammed, rehearsed, played, and recorded with no time wasted, the band moving on to the next song after just a couple of hot takes.
“There’s no sleight of hand,” Sharp says. “It may not be straightforward but it’s honest.”
“What you lose in perfection,” says Platt, “you gain in energy and authenticity.”
Though simply recorded, OUT IN THE OPEN is richly textured and fully etched, the band’s uncanny interplay and exceptional musicianship enabling them to create worlds with only the bare essentials at their disposal. “Going Midwest” was laid down in but a single take, with all of the song’s power and emotion captured in real time.
“We only played it once,” Platt says. “We just walked in there and played it. Joe came over the speaker and said, get in here. We went in, a couple of the guys were crying during the playback. It was special.”
Songs like the album opening “Farmers and Pharaohs” offer immediate evidence of Steep Canyon Rangers’ aesthetic ambition, but it is undeniably the album’s evocative title track that perhaps best captures the band’s significant determination and particular knack for widescreen intimacy. “Out In The Open” tacks far from the band’s usual domain, not only foregoing banjo but incorporating Sharp’s heretofore unheard harmonica amidst three acoustic guitars, drums, and SCR’s airtight vocal harmonies.
“When we all started playing ‘Out In The Open,’ I thought, why can’t we do this? Why shouldn’t we do this? This feels right,” Sharp says. “I had no idea a harmonica solo would work on one of our records but damn, it sounds good.”
“We decided ‘Out In The Open’ would make the perfect title for the album,” Platt says, “because the way we recorded, we were out in the open. Totally exposed. You couldn’t hide behind anything.”
“The best collection of songs we’ve ever put together,” according to Platt, OUT IN THE OPEN marks an undeniable refinement of what has already proven an exceptional canon of material. Songs like “Roadside Anthems” and the potent “Can’t Get Home” were built around archaic ballad forms, swinging the pendulum away from RADIO’s pop leanings by taking a more bare-boned approach towards songcraft.
“Some of these songs are simpler than almost anything we’ve ever recorded,” Sharp says. “For me, some of the charm lies in finding the complexity and underlying truth in simple forms. That’s always been a touchstone for us – there is a simple truth and a whole world of associations that come from just hearing certain groups of instruments playing together. What we’ve done forever in this band is kind of riff off of the assumptions that come with bluegrass or roots music.”
OUT IN THE OPEN also features an extraordinary rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” that serves an exemplary example of SCR’s acclaimed quartet singing, traditionally a vocal style associated with sacred music.
“And that’s not really the trip we’re on,” says Sharp. “But that song, for me the social message is as powerful as anything in sacred music. It’s a real statement. It doesn’t pull a single punch about where you stand when you’re singing that song. In the moment that we were in, I think making that kind of forceful, direct statement was really the way we were proceeding through our days in the studio.”
Steep Canyon Rangers attempted to fast finish a number of additional songs but Henry wisely advised them to call it a wrap: OUT IN THE OPEN was complete. With that, the band returned to the endless highway they call home for near 150 nights a year. Indeed, Steep Canyon Rangers are easily among the hardest working bands in any genre, anywhere, pulling double duty on their own and as collaborators with Steve Martin. Since teaming with the legendary actor-comedian-writer-banjo player in 2009, SCR has produced not one but two unique bodies of work, dual catalogues in constant development – along with their own works, the band has teamed with Martin for 2011’s GRAMMY® Award-nominated RARE BIRD ALERT and 2017’s THE LONG-AWAITED ALBUM, while also backing Martin’s own partnership with Edie Brickell on both 2013’s LOVE HAS COME FOR YOU and the sold out tour that followed (captured for posterity on 2014’s STEVE MARTIN AND THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS FEATURING EDIE BRICKELL – LIVE CD/DVD).
“We work a lot,” says Platt. “This has been an exceptionally busy year. We do all those shows with Steve and then we’re still super-motivated to do our own shows. We fill up the time, y’know? We work hard.”
In addition to the highly anticipated release of OUT IN THE OPEN, 2018 will also see Steep Canyon Rangers uniting with their local Asheville Symphony for a series of unprecedented live performances and the recording of yet another new album, once again pushing their increasingly distinctive music into unexpected terrain.
“Creatively, it’s been pretty exciting,” says Platt. “The minute something starts to feel a little monotonous, you’re thrown into another tour, with a whole different set of music and a different crew and circumstance. That keeps us on our toes.”
OUT IN THE OPEN is an undeniable milestone on Steep Canyon Rangers’ ongoing creative journey, its spirited, eclectic approach recasting the myriad sounds of string-based American music in their own unique image. As they fast approach their second decade, Steep Canyon Rangers are still moving forward, as ever searching for new horizons and musical vistas.
“As you travel, it needs to get sweeter,” Platt says. “And it has. Our inter-band friendships are strong, we have a lot of respect for each other and are all still focused on a lot of the same goals. We’ve been together a long time and we’ve managed to only grow closer. We continue to all be headed in the same direction.”
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