It was about 15 years ago that Graham Sharp gathered a few musicians together to informally comprise the band Steep Canyon Rangers.
“We were just having fun and the one thing turned to another. Fifteen years later, we’ve done all these crazy things,” he said.
That informal meet-up has yielded a Grammy, 10 albums, multiple tours and yes, the occasional collaboration with actor and comedian Steve Martin.
Growing up, Sharp said he was a Deadhead and an admirer of Jerry Garcia. However in high school, one of his teachers introduced him to bluegrass musicians John Hartford and Norman Blake. In college he started playing the banjo, and Sharp still counts both musicians as two of his favorites.
In the early years of Steep Canyon Rangers, there was a period of copying first generation bluegrass songs until the band developed their own style full of energy and soul.
That style has earned the band two Grammy nominations and one win, not to mention various other nods and wins.
Their 2012 album, “Nobody Knows You,” won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. The year before, their collaboration with Martin, “Rare Bird Alert” was nominated. Not bad for a group of guys that just happened to start a band.
Sharpe said winning a Grammy was pretty much the last thing on his mind when he started making music.
“The year before we lost to Alison Krauss—and you can’t begrudge her for that,” he said.
“It’s a daytime award, it’s not televised. There’s no Lil Waynes or Taylor Swifts,” he continued. “But just the experience of being in that room, with the musicians you admire, it gives you a boost and reinforces the need to keep working on your craft.”
Meeting Martin, who first picked up the banjo when he was 17, was just another informal meeting, Sharpe said.
“I think it was a spaghetti dinner,” he said.
After clicking with the band, Martin invited them to tour and record an album. One of their first shows with the comedian was a 2009 recording of “Prairie Home Companion.” Together they’ve performed at Bonnaroo Music Festival, Austin City Limits and on “Late Show with David Letterman.”
“All the sudden we had this exposure,” Sharpe said. “We’ve had some crossover fans that have come back to a lot of places we played [with Steve]. And I think it has exposed more people to bluegrass music.”
Working with Martin has been a rare experience, Sharpe said.
“To see his creative mind at work is pretty amazing,” he said. “We were just in the studio for a day last week. Projects have slowed down, but we know we have too good of a thing to let it go too long.”
It’s an interesting time to play bluegrass, as a lot of groups are implementing elements of roots music into radio hits. Sharpe said he appreciates the influence Americana music has on modern music.
“There’s a reason why you’re hearing a lot of banjos and rootsy sounds,” he said. “Something in you clicks. It connects you to the past, maybe even the past of your region.”
As much as the band is rooted in the past, they also looks ahead. As a songwriter, Sharpe has written more than 30 Steep Canyon Rangers songs. And it’s the present, everyday life that he finds himself writing about.
“It’s about keeping your eyes open and seeing the small details,” he said. “Those lyrics are the ones that get stuck in people’s heads.”
Sharpe said it can be a bit surprising to see how popular bluegrass is all over the U.S.
However, the North Carolina-based band does have a special appreciation for their southern tour dates, including their Pensacola show, before they have to head north.
“We’re looking forward to the southern sunshine,” Sharpe said.
As seen in Independent News