Jon Major – Steep Canyon Rangers
performs at the Capitol Theatre in York, Pa., Dec. 8, 2017.
Steep Canyon Rangers vocalist/mandolinist Michael Guggino talks to Pollstar about the band’s new album, how the group’s sound and touring has changed in the past 18 years, and performing with Steve Martin and Martin Short.
The Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band released
Out in the Open in January via Ramseur Records, marking its first strictly Steep Canyon album since 2015’s
Radio. In September the band and Steve Martin put out
The Long-Awaited Album, as the follow-up to 2011’s collaborative
Rare Bird Alert and 2014’s live album featuring Edie Brickell. The group was also featured on the 2013 collaborative album by Martin and Brickell,
Love Has Come For You.
Steep Canyon Rangers worked on Out in the Open with producer Joe Henry, who had the band record the album in a traditional manner, with all of the musicians playing in the same room and using no overdubs.
The organic recording technique shows off Steep Canyon’s strengthen and natural appeal as a live act. Since forming in Brevard, N.C., in 2000 the band has expanded its take on bluegrass to include percussion and the influence of folk, country, pop and rock ’n’ roll, while honing its skills on the road. During the interview Guggino discussed how the band has moved up from playing mostly festivals to headlining performing arts centers, while having more control over its tour schedule by buying a bus.
Steep Canyon’s upcoming routing features a mix of headline gigs and performances with Martin Short and Steve Martin, along with a handful of festival gigs. The most recent box office reports submitted to Pollstar for the band include two sold out gigs at the Broward Ctr. Au-Rene Theater in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., March 10 with Martin and Short, which sold 5,028 tickets and grossed $721,145.
Can you talk about working with producer Joe Henry and taking a traditional approach to recording this album?
We’ve made records all kinds of different ways but we’d never made a record where the entire band was in the same room. Or most of the band – the drums had to be in isolation, but still in the same main room where we could all see each other. We just had never made a record that you didn’t do overdubs. You know … you sing a scratchy vocal and you go back and [rerecord it]. This was all the songs top to bottom, we’d just play it several times and pick the best one.
It was really exciting making a record like that. I think it actually fit our band’s style really well, just because we are such a live band. We play so many shows together throughout the year. We’re always traveling and playing that was actually a really good way to do it for us because we play together all the time so it felt right. It felt like being on stage.
We even set up the microphones in the order how we stand on stage. So it felt really comfortable. I even used my in-ear monitors earbuds as my studio monitors instead of the big, traditional studio cans … as if I was playing a live show. So it really did feel like we were playing in front of a live audience.
What else can you share about your experience working with Joe Henry?
He was amazing to work with, he’s got such a great temperament, first of all. He’s such a great guy and so even-keeled and really listens to what we have to say and what the feeling of the song is. He’s just a charming guy, a great guy and had great ideas for the music. … I wouldn’t say he did a lot of overproducing on some of the tracks, he just let it go. Naturally, how it felt to us.
Even on one track, “Going Midwest,” they ended up using the very first take that they took. They didn’t change anything. So that’s pretty cool.
“Going Midwest” was the first single released from the album. Do you have any say as far as which songs are selected as singles or is that something that you leave up to the record label?
It’s a little bit of both. If they had picked a song that we were just like, “No, that’s not what we wanted.” I don’t think they would have been like, “You’ve got to do that.” I think that’s the one that kind of resonated with the folks that were listening to it and we also thought it would be a good one.
That particular track is just a real departure in sound from anything we’ve ever done as a band. And it doesn’t feature the whole band either. It’s only three guys – so it’s two guitars and a banjo and three voices. It just came out really great. And I can say that because I’m not one of the three people who are on that song.
Do you have any favorites tracks to play live?
Well, what’s really cool about this record, unlike any record that I think we’ve ever done is we’ve played every single track from the record live already [before releasing the album]. We’ve done records in the past where we’ve play a lot of the material but some of it just doesn’t work live. I think probably because of the way we recorded the album live, it just feels right to play it live.
How have fans been reacting to the new material?
I think they’re digging it. I already see people that have come to a few of the shows recently that have been to more than one show singing along to some of the new songs, like “Going Midwest.” It’s really cool. I think they’re liking it.
Does your setlist also include tracks from throughout your catalog?
Oh yeah. For sure. We play stuff from the last three or four albums on a regular basis. We don’t play stuff much older than that. Just because our sound and style kind of changed from the earlier years of the band. We were more of a traditional bluegrass band when we started out. We’ve kind of gotten away from that, so we’re playing more of the newer material, meaning within the last six or seven years, rather than stuff from 10 years ago or more. But that’s good, it feels good and it feels right. I think the fans that are with us now are the ones that area really into sort of the newer sound that we’re going for.
FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival/Getty Images – Mike Guggino
Mike Guggino of Steep Canyon Rangers performs onstage at That Tent during Day 4 of the 2016 Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival on June 12, 2016 in Manchester, Tenn.
Anything else you’d like to add about how the band’s sound has evolved over the years?
We’ve always played original music, which always made us a little bit unique [in the bluegrass world] but we were definitely more of a traditional bluegrass band [with] traditional bluegrass band instrumentation for the longest time. And then about six or seven years ago we added Mike on drums, on percussion and that definitely changed our style, allowed us to play different sounds and different beats, not just the traditional two beat bluegrass rhythm that you’re used to hearing. And I think the songwriting just evolved, it kind of just naturally happened together. The songwriting was evolving and becoming less traditional bluegrass sounding and just a little bit more, influenced by other things – folk and Americana and country and rock ’n’ roll.
All of us grew up listening to a lot of different types of music so it’s always been, that has always had an influence on our songwriting. And I think now because we’ve been doing it long enough we feel like we have more of a license to do what we want and not adhere to a genre, if that makes sense. Because we’re not targeting the traditional bluegrass festival audience anymore, we’re just playing our own shows so if people like us, they like us, no matter what. … It feels good to know we can kind of just really play what feels right to us and write songs that feel true to us and know that our fans are going to come along with us for the ride and not say, “Well, that doesn’t sound like traditional bluegrass” or whatever.
It’s just music. Whatever you want to call it. It’s so hard to define music, especially now because everything’s influencing everything. Just because of the way media is now. We don’t live in a vacuum where you’re only exposed to one style of music because you live in Kentucky so you’re only exposed to whatever kind of local music [is being played in the area].
You can hear any type of music – it’s right at your fingertips, on your smartphone. So how can it not influence every musician and every genre?
Can you share any insights about how you’ve seen the music industry change in the past 18 years since Steep Canyon Rangers first became a band?
Oh man. Yeah. It’s totally changed. It’s so funny – this is the perfect example I can give – I got our new CD in the mail. I got the first copy of it sent to my house. I was like, “Oh, it’s our new CD! I can’t wait to listen to it.” And then I realized I have no device to play it on, I have nothing that plays a CD. I have a brand new Macbook computer and it doesn’t have a CD drive. I have a brand-new car that I’ve had for a month. And it doesn’t have a CD player in it. It’s like, this is very telling.
Steve Martin always jokes about making records [that] you’re making something that nobody wants. Nobody actually wants the physical CD. I just turned 40 and I can remember the 100-disc CD book that I would carry around in my car in high school. Now you just plug your phone in and that’s how you listen to music. So streaming has definitely changed things. We don’t sell records like we used to.
Bluegrass, especially traditional bluegrass, is a little more isolated from this change, but still, we see it. You don’t sell as many records as you used to. But fortunately for us, that’s never how we made our living, we’ve always made our living and our career through touring and that’s what we’ll continue to do. It doesn’t really affect us too negatively in that regard.
How has your touring career changed over the years?
We’re definitely playing larger venues, playing bigger shows, bigger venues. We bought a tour bus last year and that’s given us a lot of freedom to tour when and how we want to. Like I said, I just turned 40 and most of the guys are around my age or a year younger or older. We’ve got families and kids
We’ve got a lot of kids in the band and families and nobody wants to be gone for six weeks at a time. And we don’t have to be. We tour a very sustainable tour schedule. A lot of it is just when we go out for three or four days of the week and then come home for three or four days.
We try to not go out for long weeks and weeks touring, like we did when we were a younger band or even five or six years ago.
I’ve talked to so many musicians who have said that having time off from the road is important so you don’t get burnt out.
Yeah, well, it’s not even burnt out with the touring. I mean, yeah that is a consideration, [but] it’s just really, being present, being a part of the lives of your kids. I think that’s the biggest thing. And then obviously spouses too. It’s like, you want to be there to do that stuff. And that’s not always possible but if it is possible why not do that? It is possible for us to do that, for us to have sustainable tour schedule and buying a bus definitely helped us have some flexibility and when we wanted to leave and come home. So that’s definitely had an effect on our tour schedule.
How were you touring before you got the bus?
Well, we did the van thing for many years, like many bands do, and then we bought a small RV some years after that and then we transitioned into the bus. And that was the best decision we ever made. (laughs)
Your agent at New Frontier Touring is John Everheart. How long have you been working with him?
We’ve been working with him for many years. He left his previous agency and joined New Frontier and we moved laterally with him.
He’s been with us for so long, he knows us very personally and where we’re coming from and what our goals are and our wishes and he’s very conscious about making a tour schedule that’s sustainable for us. We want to get out there and work and get the music out there and make money and all that but we also don’t’ want to kill ourselves and never see our children.
Is there a certain type of venue that you prefer or you think works best for the band, either the acoustics or vibe?
You know, what’s really cool about our band and really, our genre of music, is we can play a variety of different types of venues. And I really do enjoy them all, doing one type of venue all the time, you know We still do festivals, not as many as we used to, but we still do festivals. We’re doing a lot more performing arts centers. That seems to be the bulk of where our work is – performing arts centers,
But it’s fun to go play rock clubs every once in a while and its fun to play big festivals too, Bonnaroo and things like that. I’m just thankful that we can do it all.
As far as what you mentioned about not playing as many festivals, is that a choice made by the band or your agent?
I think it’s just that frankly you can be more successful and it makes more sense financially if you can sell venues, if you can sell hard tickets rather than soft ticket sales. And I think we’re starting to be able to do that more and just from a financial, business perspective, playing a performing art center and selling it out is going to be a lot more lucrative rather than just playing festivals. When we were first starting out we were playing lots of festivals.
That’s interesting because you often hear about how festivals are big money makers for artists but obviously it depends which festivals they are. It’s nice to know that all of the fans at your headline shows are there for you specifically.
Yeah, [headline gigs] allow you to do your show and have full creative control over the stage and sound. Like I said, I would get tired of just doing only that. I’m thankful that we do get to play festivals, they are fun and you gain more fans. You gain fans that would have never heard of you if you hadn’t played that festival because they were there.
Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusX – The Steep Canyon Rangers’ Graham Sharp and Steve Martin
Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers perform on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction Channel on Sept. 15, 2017
How do you approach the live show when you’re headlining versus touring with Steve Martin? Looking over your schedule, you’re also playing Steve Martin/Martin Short gigs.
So the shows with Steve Martin and Martin Short, that’s a completely different show than our show. And that’s a completely different show than what we used to do with Steve Martin.
When we first started working with Steve Martin and then with Steve and Edie Brickell, those were music shows. Of course, with Steve Martin, he’s going to throw comedy in there too. But now that show [with Short] is a complete comedy show and then we’re just a part of the show, the music at the end of the show. We only play like four or five songs in the show. So it’s a little different. And then of course when it’s just us it’s a full music show because we’re not funny at all. (laughs)
Do you have any stories to share from working with Steve Martin?
(laughs) So many stories, so many stories. Steve has been so great for us and he’s so great to us. He’s been one of the biggest things to really bolster our career and get us playing for big crowds and getting us playing on television and playing for bigger audiences so that’s certainly been a positive thing for our career and we’re very thankful for that.
And he’s just been great to work with as an artist. I mean, he loves music, he loves playing the banjo and its been really great making these albums that we’ve made with him over the past years. It’s fun collaborating with him and writing songs and making records and hopefully we’ll keep on doing it.
And now to get to work with Martin Short and get to know him, has just been a blast because he’s such a hilarious guy, such a great guy. He’s such a great entertainer and those two together are just genius. We certainly learned a lot about the art of show business from working with Steve and Marty, for sure.
Editor’s note: Charles Humphrey III departed the band in late 2017. Barrett Smith joined the lineup as the new bassist in January. Check out the upcoming tour schedule for Steep Canyon Rangers by clicking here.