The cell phone service is cutting in and out as the Steep Canyon Rangers roll down the highway in their home state of North Carolina. Between headlining its own tour, serving as the backing band for comedian and banjo virtuoso Steve Martin and musician Edie Brickell for an average of 50 dates a year, and recording an album in 2013, the band has been busy in the last year. And there is no sign of slowing down. Mandolin player and vocalist for the Rangers, Mike Guggino, told the Source that when they arrive in Oregon they'll play nine solo shows and then hook up with Martin and Brickell for another half-dozen concerts on the west coast.
The addition of the group to Martin's quick-picking banjo and sharp-witted comedy was more a coincidence than anything else.
"It just happened by chance," said Guggino. "We knew Steve's wife before she was dating him, and she introduced her banjo playing boyfriend to her bluegrass band friends."
As it turned out, the band works as well playing second fiddle (aw, c'mon, who could resist the pun?) to Martin's songs and comedy as they do playing their own, although the shows have a distinctly different vibe.
"Our shows are more high energy," said Guggino, "Steve's stuff is based around comedy and there's a lot of comedy between songs."
Starting as college pals in the late '90s, the Rangers formed around a mutual taking to bluegrass, although none of the members were raised on the traditional string music. The resurgence of bluegrass wasn't a pointed one for the band, but more of an organic adaptation, one that Guggino sees as universal for the genre.
"I think people like the folk aspect. You can sit around in a living room and just play songs together. People like that," said Guggino. "People also like electronica music and going to Cochella, and now you're seeing bands like Mumford and Sons play those things with banjos."
The band's most recent release, 2013's Tell the Ones I Love, is a diverse record that ranges from swinging two-steps like "Mendocino County Blues," to down-tempo dark-and-stormy waltzes. The addition of drums, that Guggino said are worked into the compositions rather than just a play-along, adds a depth and backbone to the cacophony of strings and harmonies.
Recorded at Levon Helms' famed studio in Woodstock, N.Y., at the invitation of the man himself before his death in 2012, The Steep Canyon Rangers was the first bluegrass band to ever record at the studio that has hosted John Hiatt, The Band and Muddy Waters. Rather than sticking with The Rangers' typical self-produced recordings, the crew worked with Helms' Grammy-Award winning bandleader, Larry Campbell.
"Larry produced his records and was his bandleader. It just made sense to use Larry," said Guggino. "It's nice to have that person outside the band who has a really strong opinion. It's easy to get caught in our own world and style and to hear someone with an outside perspective."
Chugging mandolin solos, buttery harmonies and tinged slide guitar mark the album as a solid addition of 12 new tracks to the Rangers' famed energy-rich live performances.
Mon., May 5
The Belfry, 302 E. Main St. Sisters.