Despite headlining and playing to a mammoth crowd at last weekend’s International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual gathering in Raleigh, the boys from Brevard, North Carolina, better known as the Steep Canyon Rangers, have disqualified themselves from most likely ever winning another IBMA entertainer of the year award.
That’s because the band doesn’t play traditional bluegrass since it added percussion, says Mike Guggino, Steep’s mandolin virtuoso, who also sings harmony. “We’re like Hillary Clinton at a Trump rally, or maybe Bernie Sanders,” he says with a laugh. It should be noted, however, the title track, “Radio,” from the band’s 2015 release, was nominated for IBMA song of the year (the award went to up-and-comers Flatt Lonesome). “That’s fine. We get it. It’s because of the drums. And Flatt Lonesome is great, very deserving.”
“Steep,” as they are affectionately known, is a Grammy-winning group most distinguishable from its contemporaries for partnering with comedian and banjo player Steve Martin.
And despite winning a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for 2013’s “Nobody Knows You,” which included the addition of percussionist Michael Ashworth, the band has recently found itself in a sort-of no man’s land when it comes to defining its musical genre, Guggino continues.
“It’s definitely weird,” he says. “We’re in an interesting place. We’re too bluegrassy for the AMA (Americana Music Awards) and we’re not in the jamgrass world, but we’re on the fringes of all of it. In a way it’s good because we can play so many different types of festivals and shows but it also makes it harder, too. It’s so much easier if you are a definable thing but we don’t fit into a category.”
But trust me when I say Steep’s fans, and there are many, don’t care that the group, which also includes co-founders Woody Platt (guitar), Graham Sharp (banjo) and Charles R. Humphrey III (upright bass) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) defies being categorized. And those fans have the chance to catch the band at two very different venues this weekend in Virginia — The Festy and Brewster Walk.
“We play such a variety of shows, it doesn’t matter to us if we’re playing for 500 or at Red Hat Amphitheater, as long as people are into it, we put on the same show,” Guggino says. “We feel comfortable enough musically in our skin that we don’t have to change for the crowd. This is it. This is what we do.”
Guggino credits the fans — bluegrass, folk, Americana — for being able to hang no matter what the band throws out at them. “No matter if they are really old or high school kids, they love the music just the same.”
Guggino adds, “We think being undefinable is a positive.” Indeed.