Interview: Steep Canyon Rangers Push Boundaries of Bluegrass to New Heights

Grammy award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers is expanding the bluegrass genre beyond traditional bluegrass, much to the joy of Nippertown fans. The band is coming “arm in arm” to UPH on Friday, March 3rd, to play some of their new original music as well as beloved tunes from their 20 years together. Upright bass player (and vocalist, among other instruments) Barrett Smith hopped into an interview with Nippertown to give us a sense of what to expect. 

The North Carolina band seemed unphased by the weather. “It’s been okay!” he laughed when asked about the impending snowstorm. “We always make it work out,” he predicted optimistically. 

The band has been to the capital region a few times, most recently playing at Music Haven last summer. “The band members are all really good travelers, and we enjoy getting out and about on foot to see the area,” Smith shared. He seemed particularly interested in checking out some local pubs and sampling some of the local musicians’ performances while visiting the Capital Region and recalled truly enjoying the vibe of the region during their summer visit.

Smith came up as a classically trained guitar player but took on the upright bass both due to interest in the instrument and also when he recognized the need for the part in bluegrass music. While he enjoys all music, he was enthusiastic about the direction of the Rangers in particular.

“We do really enjoy each other, and we work like a real family. There’s a lot of love; there’s a lot of connection, and spontaneity on stage, which requires a lot of communication. We all do really like each other and care about each other and the direction of the music,” Smith shared.

Smith noted that they try to bring that energy to the stage, being adventurous and responding well to both each other and the audience. “It’s a different set list every night, and we come into it the way the Grateful Dead did it. We don’t play the same show twice a row…within any given song, they go the way they go…we take left turns and have fun with that,” Smith mused.

Smith reports the band is acutely aware of the challenges facing the genre today. He noted that initially, the band was most influenced by traditional bluegrass bands.  “Tony Rice and Flatts Brooks Band both really were our biggest influences initially.  But the players in this band didn’t come up in bluegrass families like other bands did on the traditional circuit. We have diverse interests in the band. The Dead is one of the biggest influences on this band… making different set lists, that’s just what we came to know as the right thing to do.” 

Steep Canyon Rangers took some risks, shifting away from some of the more traditional views of the bluegrass genre. “We’ve always looked to The Band a lot, too,” Smith admits. “We had some really great nights at Levon Helm’s Barn. We even recorded at the Barn. The Band’s multi-singer approach is something we really embrace, bringing different characters to the forefront and different voices. Lately, we’ve been leaning on that even heavier. It’s a roundtable show, with six people on stage, and at any different point, any one of us can come forward and sing,” Smith shared.

This has worked for them, as has interacting with the audience at their concerts. “We’ve always been really relational with the audience. We try to be very aware of what we see and hear in the crowd, to the point where our monitor system mics the audience so we can hear what is happening out there and match it with what we do.”

This truly allows for greater spontaneity and for the audience to influence the band’s performance. While unique, Smith hopes it creates a reciprocal experience for the audience with the band that brings fans back again and again to experience their concerts.

Steep Canyon Rangers doesn’t look or sound like a traditional bluegrass band anymore. They don’t dress the part or only have acoustic sounds. But as their producer Darrell Scott noted, they truly are a bluegrass band despite these incongruities.

Scott proudly noted that he feels “the writing is just getting better and better. A lot of the future of this band, in spite of the musical prowess that shines through, lies in the fact that the songs are just getting better and better, and that becomes what’s great about us. Not just the writing but how the band wraps itself around the writer’s words. We are all invested in each song as if we all have written the song. The writer brings the idea in, and we all work on it; the writing process becomes collaborative.”

The band’s future is also wrapped up in this idea of what is bluegrass and what isn’t bluegrass. Smith shared they hope to play a role in expanding the genre, allowing it to grow and shift over time to stay relevant and also authentic. 

“You know, if the music was predicted by traditionalists, the genre would eventually die, and end up in a museum,” Smith noted, reflecting on the evolution of other styles like jazz. “If it is to survive, it will only be because bluegrass changed, and we want to be part of the change.” 

“We love it and want to see it survive and adapt and thrive,” Smith concluded.

Witness the evolution of the genre for yourself at UPH Friday night. Tickets are still on sale, and these North Carolina-based talents aren’t about to let a little snow disrupt the show.

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