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Strings and Suits: Steep Canyon Rangers on keeping bluegrass traditional 

click to enlarge Reservoir Dogs: bluegrass style.
  • Reservoir Dogs: bluegrass style.
Reservoir Dogs: bluegrass style.For the first time in as long as he can remember, Mike Guggino of the Steep Canyon Rangers has New Year's Eve off. The previous years have seen the Asheville, N.C.-based bluegrass quintet playing high-profile shows, including a pair of shows the past two years opening for the legendary Del McCoury Band.

But on the last day of 2008, Guggino, who plays mandolin and contributes vocals in Steep Canyon Rangers, is on the other side of the country, sitting somewhere ambiguously loud (which is largely acceptable with it being 6:30pm on New Year's Eve) and filling me in over the phone about the current state of bluegrass. Although Guggino is only 30 years old - much younger than what you'd expect for someone in a traditional bluegrass band - he has a tight grip on the past, present and future of bluegrass and also is acutely aware of his own band's standing within the genre.


"All in all we're a traditional bluegrass band. You know, we're open to all kinds of styles of bluegrass and other types of music, but that's who we are," Guggino says.

Labeling any sort of band, be it a punk or polka act, "traditional" can be a slippery slope, because there will always be someone there to point out some non-traditional features. But Steep Canyon Rangers, although on the younger end of the bluegrass spectrum, carry the "traditional" banner well, including in its set shades of gospel and other roots elements that serve as the foundation for bluegrass. Oh, and the guys of Steep Canyon Rangers also dress the part - they all wear delightfully classic suits on stage. And the band will be wearing said suits when they appear in Sisters on Friday night as part of the Sisters Folk Festival Winter Concert Series before crossing over to Portland for the increasingly popular River City Bluegrass Festival.

Several of the Rangers, Guggino included, studied music in college and it was during this time that they came to learn and love bluegrass music while playing in a region of the country where the genre is nearly omnipresent.

"Most of the people who play bluegrass from NC have been playing since they were little kids, so it was unique for us not to grow up with it," says Guggino of his relatively late introduction to the style.

While tradition is a part of his band's act, Guggino says the Rangers are also aware that the wave of younger, more non-traditional leaning bluegrass fans - the sort of people who probably have Yonder Mountain String Band bumper stickers on their Subarus-have helped their cause. And although the word "traditional" is getting hammered into the ground here - it should be noted that the Steep Canyon Rangers are hardly dusty or crusty. The band is well versed in the roots of its genre, but has a youthful edge to its music, as can be heard on their well-received record One Dime at a Time.

"We were right at the beginning of this phase of college-age bluegrass bands. I think that we were just at the right time to get caught up in that," Guggino says.

While their timing may have been perfect, they diverge from the path that acts like Yonder Mountain and Leftover Salmon took in that the Rangers shied away from the "newgrass" arena, opting for the suits and no-plug ins approach. Guggino, who says most of what he listens to is Americana and bluegrass, likes Yonder, but says that although the two bands share some fans, they are very different.

"We can go to a traditional bluegrass festival and wear the suits and sing gospel and roots. But we can also go to rock clubs or what we call hippie festivals and fit in," Guggino says. "I don't know if Yonder Mountain could do that. I don't think people at a traditional festival would stand it for one second for them to have their instruments plugged in or to do a five minute banjo solo."

Judging from the past few Yonder shows I've seen, I would have to agree with Guggino on this one. Also, those guys in Yonder couldn't pull off the suits.

Steep Canyon Rangers
7pm Friday, January 9. Sisters High School Auditorium. $15/adult, $10/student. For ticket information visit sistersfolkfestival.org/winterconcert.

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