Analogue Music | Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers

By Matt Conner

After two decades of making music, the Steep Canyon Rangers are still learning on the job.

On their new album Arm in Arm, mandolin player Mike Guggino says, "This is the first record that really feels like how we sound onstage." For years, Steep Canyon Rangers were synonymous with traditional bluegrass—the core instrumentation, the fitted suits, the mic circles. After they won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2013 for Nobody Knows You, Guggino says they promptly set sail for uncharted waters. It wasn't a slight; it just happened to be where their interests were taking them.

Arm in Arm showcases a band that's learned to "serve the song," says Guggino, and it's taken considerable time for the Steep Canyon Rangers to learn how exactly that works. Elements of fear and nervousness were involved in stepping out from familiar musical circles. They were known and loved as bluegrass musicians, yet the North Carolina-based sextet was also ready for other influences and instruments. After multiple albums, Guggino says they've finally shed such concerns.

We recently sat down with Guggino—who plays mandolin and electric mandolin alongside his bandmates Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, Nicky Sanders, Mike Ashworth, and Barrett Smith—to hear more about the new flavors on Arm in Arm, the journey to find creative freedom, and the upside of spending so much time at home this year.

Analogue: How does the album release feel this time around?

Mike Guggino: It actually feels great to be releasing music to the world right now. We need it right now. The world needs creativity and as much positive energy as it can handle right now. In that sense, it feels realy good.

From a business standpoint, it's pretty weird to release a record when you're not touring. We all know nobody buys records anymore, really. That's not how it's done. We're aware of that and get it, but it was nice in the past to play shows. And we do sell CDs, especially in our genre, we still sell physical LPs and CDs to people. We go out to the record table after the show and sign stuff. We miss that for sure, but it does feel good to release new music now.

'Arm in Arm' cover art
'Arm in Arm' cover art

Analogue: Are you missing the road?

Mike: We miss being out there, for sure. There are positives and negatives to all of this. We're getting more time with our families. We've been a very busy band, a hard-working band for many years, especially for the last few years. We've been especially busy and we've had conversations about how we can do this and continue to make it work with our families. We were trying to figure that out, but the coronavirus took care of that. [Laughs]

We've been home since March and I don't see us viably going on tour like we used to until next year and even then, who knows? But that's okay. We're doing everything we can to take advantage of the time at home and then also try to stay positive and keep creating music and working on new music.

Analogue: Do you think this forced sabbath will create a different band on the other side of this?

Mike: Good question. I'm assuming yes. I think we'll all be different on the other side of this. I think we'll have a different perspective about traveling and how we tour. I think the industry at large will have questions to answer about how we do shows and festivals and things like that. So we'll be the same band at the core, but I think there will be some things different certainly about the way we perceive the industry and the way it looks when we get back.

Analogue: Let's talk about Arm in Arm. I read a quote from you that said this was the first album that matches what you sound like on stage. That was a bit surprising to me, that those weren't congruent for you well before now. What kept you from getting there before?

Mike: I think a big part of it is that we produced the record ourselves. We didn't work with a producer, so there was no other person in the room saying, 'I think it should sound like this.' It was definitely us just going in there playing, which meant it was up to us to decide what we wanted it to sound like, what the songs should be, stuff like that.

You're right, though. Radio and Out in the Open sounded more along the way we sound live, for sure, but this record, I think a big part of it is that we felt this freedom to do whatever we wanted and not try to sound like we're trying to be a bluegrass band or a rock band or an Americana band. We're just a band. This is the music we're playing. If the song requires a mandolin and guitar and that's it, then that's what we did. If the song needs electric guitars and an organ and drum kit, we did that. We weren't trying to fit a genre or style; we just tried to serve the song moreso than we ever did.

"We weren't trying to fit a genre or style; we just tried to serve the song more than we ever did before."

Out in the Open, even though we did cut it live, we didn't do a lot of additional instruments or switching instruments—not to the level that we did on this record. So I do think we were headed in that direction on Radio and Out in the Open, but I think it came to a head on this record with Arm in Arm because we were producing it ourselves and doing what we wanted to do.

Analogue: How much were you worrying about fitting into a genre in the past? Were you not serving the song in the past? Can you think of moments those things were true, perhaps?

Mike: For sure. We started as a bluegrass band, y'know, in college. We were very traditional for years, playing the traditional bluegrass festival circuit, wearing suits and singing around one microphone like old-timey bluegrass. That's what we did for a long time, and that's how we built our identity. Then at some point, beyond 2010, over the last 10 years we've gotten away from that. It wasn't necessarily a conscious choice like, 'We're not going to sound like that anymore.'

We were starting to have some success, and when that happens, I think you feel you can take more liberties or do what you want. Then we also won the Grammy for Bluegrass in 2012. So it was like, 'Oh, okay, maybe we're a bluegrass band.' [Laughs] It's tough because bluegrass is what got us to where we are. We're not trying to leave bluegrass behind. We're still playing banjos and fiddles and mandolins and acoustic guitars and upright bass. We've just added other elements to that.

Of course, the traditionalists might not call that bluegrass anymore. That's all right. I'm not sure I would call it bluegrass anymore either. Sometimes we are and sometimes we aren't. It depends on the song. That's how I think about it. Some songs we play, I'm like, 'We're a bluegrass band. Listen to us!' Then other times I'm saying, 'Shit, we sound like The Band! We're a rock band. There's nothing remotely bluegrass about this except for the fact that there's a fiddle and mandolin.' But that's what The Band did, too. They added acoustic and folk instruments into that rock and roll sound.

We just love it all. All of us grew up listening to other kinds of music besides bluegrass and playing other kinds of music besides bluegrass. We love bluegrass and that's how the band started, but now we want to put all of that together into something—whatever it is we're doing now, that's what we're doing. I guess it's up to the eye of the beholder as to what you call it.

In the past, we would make a record and be like, 'Well, they're not going to play this on bluegrass radio.' That was a consideration, especially after we won the Grammy. We won the Grammy because we were a bluegrass band. We're played on bluegrass radio. We're on the bluegrass charts. Now that we've gotten away from that, we don't get played on those stations and we certainly won't be nominated for a bluegrass Grammy ever again sounding the way we sound. [Laughs] That's fine. It's not about awards and accolades. It's about creating the art you want to create and being true to yourself. That's what we're doing for sure.

Analogue: I love that last line. Is that something talked about internally or is that just the understood ethos of the band?

Mike: It's both, honestly. It's definitely an understood ethos of the band, but also we've talked about it. We're all on board. It's fine. Nobody in the band is like, 'I don't know guys. We're going to piss off the bluegrass police on this one.' [Laughs] We used to fear that. We were nervous stepping outside of that genre because it was our comfort zone. We were embraced by that community for so long and received the highest honor you can receive in that genre and then we ventured out from it. It's a little scary, a little nervous, but we're all on board with being true to ourselves. We can't pretend to be something we're not and this is the music we want to make.

"We were embraced by that community for so long and received the highest honor you can receive in that genre and then we ventured out from it. It's a little scary, a little nervous, but we're all on board with being true to ourselves."

This is the sound we want to have, but it's going to continue to grow. I don't think we're done evolving, which is great. I also think that we could one day say,'Let's make a traditional bluegrass record again. Let's put the drum kit down. Let's get around a couple mics again and make a bluegrass record.' It's not that we've forsaken our bluegrass roots. We've added to it and taken it in other directions as well. We love bluegrass and we're taking it with us.

Analogue: We've referenced newer flavors, but specifically what are those on Arm in Arm?

Mike: The most obvious one is electric guitar. That's on a lot of tracks. There's organ on a lot of tracks, even though it's not necessarily up front on a lot of tunes. There's piano. Graham has this new instrument he's been playing over the last few years, which is an electric banjo. It's a one-of-a-kind thing and it really sounds like an electric guitar, but it's tuned like a banjo. He plays with a slide, so you hear that on "Every River" and "Maybe in the Next Life."

I played electric mandolin on one track, just rhythm stuff. I think that's mostly what we did on this one, just getting a different soundscape than we've had in the past. We were experimenting with that in our live shows before we made the record and I think that's what I mean by this record sounding more like us. On this one, we experimented with those sounds and then entered the studio and tried to capture it. We were really digging it live.

We're a live band and we play a lot of shows. We tour a lot and play a lot of live dates, so that's one of the benefit of playing a lot and being a band for so many years is that you can try this stuff out on the road and on the stage. You can see what works before you get into the studio. By the time you get there, it's just time to get a really good live take. That's what we tried to do on Arm in Arm.

Analogue: I'm sure every band member would yield a different answer, but I'm curious for you personally, what were you most excited by on this new record as the mandolin player?

Mike: You know, for me, being a mandolin player, some of these songs that aren't bluegrass-centered—that are more rock-centered, I guess—my role is diminished. But I'm totally okay with that. I try to find ways to make the mandolin work and then add a layer. I think layering is a big part of the sound we're getting now. It's fun for me to step outside of that bluegrass genre where the role of the mandolin, when you play rhythm especially, has this one thing where you chop on the off-beat.

For me, doing songs that don't have that beat or feel, it means the sky is the limit. There isn't really someone to follow. I guess Sam Bush and certainly other mandolin players have done that—Levon Helm did that. I'm not the first person by any means. But it's fun to figure out on each song how to add something. I can still do solos and things like that but even that, with these songs, maybe there's no solo at all. So for me, it's learning how to work my instrument into these songs.

I also love these songs so much. I believe in these songs so much. Again, we've been playing them on stage, so I know people like them so much. So you want to try to make them sound as good as you can and add something. And they're still evolving. We recorded some of them almost a year ago and not that we're playing a lot now, but when we do, we're still changing the nuances of the song. I'm still figuring out how to make the mandolin work in songs even beyond what we did on the album, which is great. It's fun.

VISIT: Steep Canyon Rangers

Photo: Shelley Swanger