Steep Canyon Rangers: Transcending bluegrass to create their own sound

Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers are going full speed on their solo tour that brings them to the Ridgefield Playhouse Nov. 15. The North Carolina-based group of six musicians is well- known for backing Steve Martin in recent years but has been honing their unique bluegrass sound since forming in 2000, infused with pop, country, folk, rock, and more to make it all their own. Their new album, Out in the Open, is their boldest so far, taking bluegrass to new heights and getting back to its origins. Andrea Valluzzo spoke with Graham Sharp about the upcoming performance.

Andrea Valluzzo: How did you get your band name?

Graham Sharp: We were sitting around in one of of our houses and we needed a name and there was a bottle of beer sitting on the table, called Steep Canyon something or another. We thought it sounded like a good bluegrass name at the time. It’s also a lesson that sometimes you make a decision that 20 years later you have to live with.

AV: What can audiences expect?

GS: It’s really a blend of a lot of American music styles, I think it’s most recognizable as bluegrass, a lot of instrumental improvisation, fast harmony, a lot of voices together and it generally is a high energy show. It’s a show that features everyone in the band and their talents.

AV: You’ve won many awards but in 2013, your solo album Nobody Knows You won the Grammy Award for best bluegrass album. What was that moment like?

GS: It’s surreal to win a Grammy. That was a moment when that record was one we kind of branched out from the typical bluegrass template so it was really gratifying to have that recognized with a Grammy. It really inspired us to keep pushing in our direction musically.

AV: In your new album, Out in the Open, you really push bluegrass.

GS: The roots of bluegrass are a combination of different forms of music. It started as a mixture of fiddle tunes and the blues. For us, it’s just bringing more musical influences to that style and our personal likes and our abilities. It’s more rock and roll, pop, blues and jazz.

AV: What inspires your songwriting?

GS: Usually, if I’ve written a song and it either makes me laugh or makes me cry right off the bat, I feel like it’s done its job. Whether it’s a good song or fans will like it is a different story. I try to judge it and if it passes the test of having real emotion to it, that’s really what I am going for.

AV: Your background was not in bluegrass but listening to the Grateful Dead. How that does influence your sound?

GS: The improvisational part of it has had a big influence on us; not being afraid to loosen the musical form a bit, give people the space to really stretch out instrumentally.