A Conversation with Mike Guggino of Steep Canyon Rangers
The Steep Canyon Rangers are bringing a healthy dose of bluegrass to the Deer Valley Music Festival this Saturday. Currently on the road promoting their ninth album, Radio, the Grammy-Award-winning group, which hails from North Carolina, consists of members Woody Platt (guitar), Graham Sharp (banjo), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass), Mike Guggino (mandolin), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), and Mike Ashworth (box kit). They're also widely known for collaborating with actor/comedian/banjo player Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Eric Brickell.
Ahead of their performance, we chatted with Mike Guggino to find out more about some of the inner workings of the band, how they maintain their high energy show after show.
Park City Magazine: You're on tour promoting your newest album, Radio, which has been praised for the "dynamic songwriting and instrumental virtuosity." What was the creative process like?
Mike Guggino: This album is pretty special for us because it's the first one we've recorded with our percussionist Mike Ashworth. Graham and Charles typically do all the writing and then come to us with a mostly complete idea. Then we'll work together to arrange the songs, tweaking here and there as needed.
The other great thing about this album was being able to work with producer Jerry Douglas. He has such a great ear for how to arrange songs and is an amazing instrumentalist. It was a blessing to be able to have him lend his playing talent to some of the songs.
PCM: How's the tour going so far? What do your days typically look like and how do you manage to keep your energy up?
MG: It's been great, everything has been going really well. We switch out between flying and driving on the bus. If it's on the bus, we'll usually spend a good amount of the time sleeping. Unfortunately, our families can't really join us—the bus is crowded and it's kind of like sleeping in a coffin—but we go out for a week or two and then fly back home for a week. There's not really much more to it than eating healthy and getting enough rest.
PCM: The band has previously worked a great deal with Steve Martin. What's it like working with Steve—and do you have any plans to collaborate further?
MG: We've been able to do some truly incredible things with Steve that we would never have imagined doing before. Of course he is very funny being around, but he's also a fantastic banjo player. As far as this tour, we just wrapped up a couple shows with him and Martin Short in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. We're probably going to reunite with him in September or October again.
PCM: Is there anything in particular that inspires you in your creation of music?
MG: It's tough to point to one specific thing, but a lot of it is definitely what we draw from where we live in North Carolina. The state is really beautiful, with mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and lakes. In fact, I name all my instrumentals after favorite places or hikes in the state.
PCM: Your band has been together around 15-16 years. Looking back, do you think the band has evolved musically?
MG: I would say we've changed a lot. When we first started, we were very traditional bluegrass, but over the years we started to reach a wider audience and added more progressive, non-traditional elements, especially into this new album. One of the things that has remained constant is we really enjoy writing and playing our own music, which sets us apart a bit
PCM: What are your plans for the future of the group—any new projects?
MG: We've played all over the U.S. and in Europe as well and we're still just looking to get better all the time. We want to improve our craft, grow, and play bigger shows. There's already quite a few songs in the works so we'll most likely be back in the studio this winter.
The Steep Canyon Rangers will be performing music from their new album as well as some favorite old tunes alongside the Utah Symphony as part of the Deer Valley Music Festival on July 30. You can get more info on the concert and buy tickets here.