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The Steep Canyon Rangers are one of the most popular and widely known musical acts of any genre to hail from North Carolina. Their influence spread far beyond their hometown of Asheville years ago, thanks in part to frequent collaboration with Steve Martin, but also thanks to the band's innovative songwriting and energetic live performances in both bluegrass festivals and concert halls. It was quite a treat to have them performing at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts in Boone. SCR is no stranger to the local scene in Boone, either. In the early days, the band performed at Murphy's, Boone Saloon, and Legends, to name a few.
The Steep Canyon Rangers are most commonly described as a bluegrass band, but you'll see them labeled as "Country," "Americana," even "Rock" sometimes too. The result is that this band has the freedom to not be pinned down by any one genre – in instrumentation, vocals, and songwriting style. An obvious freeness permeated their live performance that was likewise freeing to experience.
While it is sad to not see the band "really" live, in person, the production of this livestreamed concert from the stage of the Schaefer Center made the at-home experience the next best thing. And, thanks to generous corporate and individual sponsors, this performance (as well as every performance in the "Schaefer Center Presents" series for the past year) was completely free. The band performed many of the songs on their latest record, Arm in Arm, which was released mid-pandemic, in October 2020. Technically, this audience was one of the first to have heard this music performed live.
The concert began with the first two tracks of Arm in Arm: "One Drop of Rain" and "Sunny Days," both written by Graham Sharp. An underlying flow of banjo and mandolin grew gently in the first song, with lots of intricate solo moments for Mike Guggino and Sharp on their two instruments. Right away, the band's skill with improvisatory jam-style performing was obvious – nearly every song had at least one solo, but in an organic way that flowed from one instrument to the next. Several songs, like "Can't Get Home," began with an atmospheric-style transition from the previous song, often led by Mike Ashworth's drums. The ability to view multiple close-up camera angles made these parts of the concert even more enjoyable.
SCR fans probably noticed that the band's fiddle player, Nicky Sanders, was unfortunately not able to join his bandmates for this performance. Instead, showing true COVID-19 flexibility, resonator guitar player Tommy Maher stepped in. Maher is from the Asheville-based quintet Fireside Collective, and his steel guitar picking, played horizontal style, was a welcome and natural addition to the other five band members.
A unique thing about SCR's performances is that there is hardly just one "lead singer" – lead and harmony vocals are shared among all musicians. In addition to Sharp and Woody Platt's lead vocals, bassist Barrett Smith lent his clear solo voice to several songs, the upbeat "Take the Wheel," and the verses on "Everything You Know," a slower-tempo ballad with a refrain that built to multiple layers of vocal harmony, even becoming a cappella for a few moments. Throughout the concert, the band resonated with strong chordal harmony that accentuated meaningful phrases, like in "Easy to Love" ("I may never be this easy to love again"), or Platt and Sharp's duets on "Bullet in the Fire" and "Tell the Ones I Love."
Two more songs from Arm in Arm closed the concert: the wistful "In the Next Life" followed by the lively "Take My Mind." If you missed this performance, you can catch Steep Canyon Rangers again in a few weeks, performing live in Chapel Hill with Carolina Performing Arts. In addition, SCR's album North Carolina Songbook, a live Merlefest 2019 recording of NC songwriters' work, has been nominated for "Best Bluegrass Album" in the 2021 GRAMMY awards. The winners will be announced Sunday, March 14.