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Grammy-nominated band Steep Canyon Rangers reflects on UNC origins, self-produced album

Rangers St Pete 2018 Hi Res-9 (Photo Credit_ Shelly Swanger).jpeg

Steep Canyon Rangers, a band formed by UNC alumni, has made waves in the bluegrass scene and earned three grammy nominations. Photo courtesy of Shelly Swanger.

Steep Canyon Rangers started as a group of friends at UNC with a common interest in music. They never knew they would one day be nominated for three Grammys. 

The Asheville-based bluegrass band has won one of those Grammy Awards. The band has a mix of instrumental talents, including a banjoist, mandolinist, guitarist, fiddler, drummer and bassist. The six members, Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders, Mike Ashworth and Barrett Smith, are all vocalists as well. 

Most recently, the band produced three albums in 2020. One of these, “North Carolina Songbook," was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. 

Sharp said the formation of the band happened organically.

“We were basically just trying to figure out how to put a bluegrass band together. We had a few of the different instruments and a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of experience, but not a whole lot," Sharp said. "So it was very much a process of group learning as far as that goes. We never really decided we were going to be a band. We always just kind of were.” 

UNC alumna Andrea Hall went to school alongside the Rangers in the mid-to-late '90s and got to know them while they grew as a band. 

“My boyfriend at the time and I rented a house together on Isley Street," Hall said. "On one side lived Ben Folds, and on the other lived a student named Graham Sharp. The first time I saw Graham, he was sitting outside on a rickety lawn chair, teaching himself how to play banjo.” 

Hall emphasized how genuine the band is and how obvious it was to her from the beginning that it was truly dedicated to its music and audience. 

A memory that stuck with Hall was when the Steep Canyon Rangers performed at her friend Tony Peacock’s book release party at the Forest Theatre.  

“That was a true Chapel Hill moment that will go down in history, but one that was also intimate with no huge lavish displays,” Hall said. “Just friends getting together to genuinely celebrate. And that's what I think about SCR and their members — that they are genuine, dedicated and true Carolinians in many ways. You can hear this in their music and know that is what is in their hearts.” 

Being nominated for three Grammys has been validating for the Rangers, but they said their music’s connection with listeners is the most rewarding thing for them.

“There's definitely times you can tell something is connecting with the listener,” Sharp said. “People will come tell you or send you an email or something like that, that something has really struck a chord with them, and for me that's the most validating bits of it.”  

The band’s project manager at Yep Roc Records, Mack White, praised the band’s stage presence. 

“Their fiddle player, Nicky, he’s jumping around on the stage," White said. "It's like Van Halen, but if there were violins. He's amazing.” 

White is impressed by the band’s ability to bring together all the instruments while still highlighting each member and their unique talents. In the band's performances, White said it feels like the musicians are all speaking through their instruments.

As a songwriter, the writing process is especially special to Sharp. 

“My favorite part is the moment that the song goes from just one person or one or two people sitting around with a guitar, writing a song, to where it becomes a real living and breathing beast with the band,” Sharp said.  

The Rangers recently produced an album on their own, and plan to do so again in the future. 

Sharp said they had a blast playing around with the different instruments available at the studio in Nashville and ended up adding a lot of new sounds to the album because of it. The experience of producing their own album went so well that the band plans to continue to do so in the future.

The band members are excited to get back on stage for live performances and reconnect with their listeners. 

“We did go play a show last weekend and it felt so good to be out playing in front of people,” Sharp said. “We went to Chattanooga a couple of nights ago. It feels so good to just have some music coming back. A huge part of what sustained me has been other people's of creativity and music for the last year or so, so just ready to go get out and pay some of that forward a little bit.”  

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