By Andi Bricklin
(Photo by Michael Wilson)
Not many bands can make their name on sheer musicianship these days, but the Steep Canyon Rangers lead the pack in doing just that. With the release of their 10th studio album, Out in the Open, the band take us from their hometown of Brevard, North Carolina, tucked away in the Smoky Mountains and are “Going Midwest” on the band’s lead single from Out in the Open.
I caught up with one of my favorite mandolin players, Mike Guggino (a Falcons fan by the way, but an Eagles fan for Super Bowl LII), to talk about what the band has been working on and what we can look forward to in the near future. I spoke with Mike early morning following an exciting Eagles NFC championship win Sunday night. We talked about the city being in the news.
“I heard ya’ll greased the poles in Philly,” Guggino said. “Yeah, we do that when celebrations are in order.” I retorted. But back to the record.
Taking a different approach to this record, the band chose to enlist artist and producer, Joe Henry (who, by the way, has the best URL I’ve ever seen: joehenrylovesyoumadly.com). Henry has worked with legendary artists including Billy Bragg and Bonnie Raitt, as well as Hayes Carll and Hugh Laurie (Yes, Dr. House is a blues artist!) “Joe wanted to make the record live, no overdubs.”
The band spent four days at Fidelitorium Recordings in rural Kernersville, North Carolina, to record 12 tracks. “We just played until we got it; 3 or 4 passes,” Guggino explained. Not many bands can do this successfully, but the Steep Canyon Rangers have been performing together so long and “we’re comfortable playing together.”
The evidence is clear throughout the album and the band is really excited about the results. “It’s got an edge, it breathes, it moves. It’s got an old-school sound with an energy and vibe that’s worth it,” Guggino described.
The Steep Canyon Rangers prove on this album that they have a natural mix that is simply outstanding. “What’s cool about this record is we play every single song in our show already,” Guggino revealed. Translating album recordings to live performance can often be a hurdle for bands coming out of the studio, but you can look forward to hearing all of your favorites from this record the next time you catch a show.
In addition to the songs, the album has a great cover. “We knew we wanted to go with a buffalo,” Guggino explained. However, artist David Hummel had the idea to do something different. He used the photo, taken by Tyler Sharp, and cut it into strips then weaved it with colored strips of paper to give it this beautiful pixelated texture that you simply can’t achieve with Photoshop. You can check out the video of how it was done here.
A real appreciation for the artistry of the cover occurs when you buy the album on vinyl. It’s a popular trend for a band to release their music on vinyl these days. “We feel it’s important [to have it available] and it sounds great,” Guggino says. “That’s how I would buy it. I don’t have anything that can even play a CD anymore, but I have a turntable.” And what’s better is the vinyl comes with a digital download of the record. It’s like the best of both worlds!
As the Steep Canyon Rangers head back on the road to promote the new album, they’re finding themselves in bigger venues with bigger audiences. “Playing with Steve [Martin] has given us a lot of exposure,” Guggino admitted.
With dates up and down the East Coast, stretching northwest and into California, the entire country is sure to be getting the bluegrass bug. The first tour stop is the band’s hometown record release show at the Asheville Arena where the band will be performing with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. Other stops include music festivals such as the Ogden Music Festival in Utah and the RockyGrass Festival in Colorado.
There are so many great things in store for the band including upcoming performances with comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short in An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a comedy show that’s scheduled to have its own Netflix special in 2019!