The Steep Canyon Rangers have learned not to talk too much between songs. For the past few years, they’ve toured as the backing band for comedian-banjoist Steve Martin, whose wit on the stage is as quick as his fingers on the frets.
“We find ourselves doing less emcee work,” says Rangers bassist Charles R. Humphrey III. “We definitely don’t tell jokes. Steve has that covered.”
With a lineup that also includes Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Graham Sharp on banjo and Woody Platt on guitar, it’s not difficult to see what attracted the comedian to the band. In addition to instrumental prowess and a sharp group dynamic, the Rangers have, over the past decade, developed a broad bluegrass style that combines elements of country jazz, folk and rock.
That Steep Canyon range is evident on the band’s new album, Tell the Ones I Love, which they recorded at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y. Fresh off organizing and playing the Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, N.C., the band stopped off in Nashville, where Humphrey spoke to CMT Edge about playing with a drummer, writing fictional characters and backing a famous funnyman.
CMT Edge: How did you end up recording Tell the Ones I Love in Woodstock?
Humphreys: We had the opportunity to go and play one of the Ramble shows up at Levon Helm’s Barn. It was one of the last ones where he was actually there singing. We played a set and then sat in with the house band. Woody Platt got to sing a verse on “The Weight,” and I got to play bass. After the show, we were hanging out in Levon’s living room, and he said, “You guys oughta come up and make a record here at the Barn.” So we took him up on it.
He passed away before we could get up there, but it was still an amazing experience. The studio is a great big room with an open fireplace burning. Larry Campbell produced. He’s involved in a lot of different types of music, so he was able to bring to the table a lot of ideas about arrangements and instrumentation. We never want to be boxed in into any one style. The songs demanded certain instruments, and we also deliberately incorporated some other instruments, like drums and pedal steel.
The drums really stand out on the record. Usually in bluegrass, the string instruments provide the percussive elements. Did that change the way you play?
I think it changed a lot. The drummer, Jeff Sipe, was so tasteful that he could find things that really worked and add layers and textures. I don’t think it would work if you just went back and put drums on an existing track. He and I would play everything live, so we could really lock in on some good grooves. And it freed up Mike Guggino from just playing on the backbeat. He could experiment with different rhythms throughout the record because the drums could hold down the backbeat.
The song “Camellia” definitely sounds like it was inspired by Levon Helm, especially that complex drumbeat.
Larry said the same thing. He said he could have stolen that tune for Levon. His kit was there for Jeff to play on, and I think everything came together to give the song a real Band sound. It’s not your typical bluegrass groove. It’s got a rock ‘n’ roll thing going on. It’s not what we do a lot, but I like the way it turned out.
It really did seem like the spirit of Levon was everywhere in that place. And I guess there’s a unique parallel between The Band and the Steep Canyon Rangers. They got a lot of recognition from working with Bob Dylan, and we’ve had the opportunity to work with Steve Martin. So both groups got a good launch in unexpected ways.
I expect no one has booed Steve Martin the way they booed Dylan.
Not that I know of. They’re two very different entertainers.
How do you divide songwriting duties in a band where everyone writes separately?
It’s tough, but a good song will inevitably rise to the top. Graham usually writes one or two, and Woody does a few. I wrote two songs with Philip Barker of Town Mountain. One’s kind of a honky-tonk thing, and the other one has that Band feel. Typical of our band, we’re always looking for something that’s a little different or unexpected, so we ended up using those on the record.
You also co-wrote “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken.”
I wrote that one with Jonathan Byrd. For that one, I had an idea for the chorus, and we wrote it over Skype, believe it or not. It came together in two days at the most. Those are the ones I like the most — the ones that come out fast.
We created a basic story where a guy’s at a train station and his girl’s leaving him. There’s this guy there, Blind Willie. Everybody knows who Blind Willie is. He drinks too much, he’s playing music for change, but he’s happy with what he’s doing. It’s fun doing a fictional thing like “Bluer Words.” I enjoy creating characters and painting moments. That’s not how my songs usually work, but that’s how “Bluer Words” works.
You’ve got a busy fall between touring as headliners and backing Steve Martin. How do you balance those two sides of the Steep Canyon Rangers?
Usually we do four tours during the summer with Steve, usually the last 10 days of each month. But this year it’s only May, June, July and then a bit in October. We do about 50 shows with him — and Edie Brickell is on this current tour — and then we work the rest of the year on our own. So we usually end up playing about 150 shows a year.
A lot of people who come out to see Steve Martin get turned on to bluegrass, and hopefully they get turned on to the Steep Canyon Rangers. So we’ll follow up a venue or a city after we’ve played there with Steve as soon as we can, and usually we’ll get a lot of the same fans along with some new people. We feel like we’re ambassadors for bluegrass. It’s a great responsibility, but we love doing it.