Steep Canyon Rangers talk about Grammy, playing Savannah and, of course, Steve Martin

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 21, 2013 

  • SAVANNAH MUSIC FESTIVAL

    WHEN: through April 6

    WHERE: Venues vary.

    DETAILS: For a full list of performers, venues and to buy tickets, go to www.savannahmusicfestival.org.

Whenever Mike Guggino and the other members of the Asheville bluegrass quintet Steep Canyon Rangers do interviews now, they expect at least a few questions about Steve Martin, the famous funnyman -- but serious banjo player -- with whom they made a Grammy-nominated album in 2011 and still sometimes perform.

And they don't mind answering those questions.

Guggino doesn't bristle when asked how the band met Martin -- through Martin's wife, Anne Stringfield, a longtime friend of guitarist Woody Platt's brother -- or what it was like to work with him or about Martin's musical chops, in part, because he knows his band is about so much more than that single collaboration.

And they now have a Grammy to prove it.

The band's 2012 LP, "Nobody Knows You," took home the golden gramophone last month for "Best Bluegrass Album," a feat their record with Martin, "Rare Bird Alert," failed to do the year before.

"It really does feel like validation for us as a band," Guggino said. "It's a recognition of the work we have done ... and our identity as a band without Steve. It felt surreal to win, and even getting nominated was such a huge honor. I honestly think the only reason we didn't win last year was because of Alison Krauss. I don't think she's ever lost."

Steep Canyon Rangers will be performing March 21 and March 22 at the Charles H. Morris Center as part of the Savannah Music Festival. The March 21 performance is sold out, and tickets for the next day's performance are $15.

This year's festival, which runs through April 6, also includes performances by Old Crow Medicine Show, Dr. John and The Nite Trippers and Emmylou Harris.

It's been four years since Steep Canyon Rangers performed at the Savannah Music Festival, and Guggino said the band -- which comprises himself, Platt, banjo player Graham Sharp, violinist Nicky Sanders and bassist Charles Humphrey III -- are looking forward to their return.

"The last time we played this really cool, old building and the show just had a really good vibe," Guggino said. "I love the history of the place as an old port city and I remember having a really good time."

Worked into the setlist will be some of the songs off "Nobody Knows You," "Rare Bird Alert" and an as-yet untitled project the band just finished recording at the studio formerly owned the late rock'n'roll icon Levon Helm.

Guggino said the band met Helm, famous for his work with Bob Dylan and The Band, shortly before his death in April and jumped at Helm's suggestion that Steep Canyon Rangers record their next album at "The Barn," his studio in Woodstock, N.Y.

Guggino said the newer songs are some of the band's favorite to perform live.

"We are really about working those new songs into the set right now," Guggino said. "We have so much fun playing those songs, and I think the audience can tell how excited we are to play them. We are still figuring out how to play some of them live, so hopefully we don't mess them up too bad. Even if we do, that's part of the process."

Having collaborated with Steve Martin, met Levon Helm and recorded at his studio and appeared on television shows ranging from "Late Night with David Letterman" to "The Colbert Report," Guggino said the journey for Steep Canyon Rangers has been, at times, strange and surprising but has never stopped being fun.

"We've been together for ... about 13 years now and we really started as a college bar band," Guggino said. "I don't know if we ever intended for it go this far or to do the things that we've done. I mean, it's been crazy but when you love what you do, anything is possible."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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