Grammy-winning Steep Canyon Rangers more than Steve Martin's backup band

Steep Canyon Rangers

Our cover stars Steve Martin and Martin Short are coming to Old National Centre this weekend with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Read Ed's memories of performing with Martin Short plus our interviews with Steve and Marty, and a meditation on Steve's banjo playing by Punch Brother Noam Pikelny.

The relationship between cover dude Steve Martin and North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers is a beautiful love story. All seven men – yes, the Rangers number six – love bluegrass. All seven men love playing together. And all seven men are Grammy winners (the Rangers for their 2012 album Nobody Knows You; Martin, twice for both a performance with Earl Scruggs and a 2009 solo album).

And although Martin's profile may eclipse the Rangers (40+ years of comedy stardom will do that), in no way are the Steep Canyon Rangers merely his backup band. No, they're just seven guys who found out they really like to jam on some bluegrass together, and have kept that up through festival stops, album sessions and big venue tours, like Saturday's appearance at the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre. They've played together on and off since 2009, recording with guests like Sir Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks.

The seven dudes will play together Saturday. Banjo player Graham Sharp answered a few questions about playing with Steve via email before the show.

NUVO: What do you admire about Steve as a player?

Graham Sharp: Steve is a very precise player, but what I admire most are his melodies.  

NUVO: How have these shows with Martin and Steve together gone thus far, and what's your favorite bit of them? Martin mentioned he's developed a taste for bluegrass after some time together ...

Sharp: The comedy shows are wonderful. They have a great framework that allows them to improvise at any moment.  The night David Letterman was a surprise guest on stage I just stood beside the stage and gawked and belly laughed. 

NUVO: How would you describe the deep and varied history of bluegrass to someone who has perhaps never heard a bit of it?  What originally drew you to it?

Sharp: Bluegrass is a very organic music with roots in the melodies of both the Scotch Irish and the Southern Blues traditions.  The first time seeing a good bluegrass in person can make for a powerful experience. John Hartford and Jerry Garcia were two musicians that really got me hooked.

NUVO: Your albums with Steve have been populated by a variety of diverse characters, from Paul McCartney to the Dixie Chicks to Edie Brickell — What sorts of different experiences have you had writing for and with these different players and musicians?

Sharp: Edie is such a dedicated writer. She conjures great images and when she sings she does not hold back. Paul has an ear for the hook if anyone ever did. 

NUVO: What's next for the Steep Canyon Rangers?

Sharp: More of the same. A bunch of great festivals next year including Bonnaroo and Merlefest.