I t’s a picture perfect evening in Greenville on May 30, and the Peace Center is packed with an audience practically pulsing. Soon, in a fire-engine red suit, Steven Martin strides onto the stage and stands before the group of five musicians already assembled. In their grips are a mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass, and guitar—all the makings for some serious good fun.
Martin, who is many things: brilliant comedic actor, Hollywood superstar, and first-time father at 67-years-old, is also a really good—a really, really good—banjo player and is pretty much the (honorary) sixth Ranger in Asheville’s bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers, with whom Martin has played (featuring Edie Brickell, usually) a string of tours over the past four years. After the rousing two-hour performance—during which it is abundantly clear that the Steeps are not just a backing band to Mr. Martin, the after-show backstage cool-down includes a smiling Brickell who saunters breezily by, having changed into comfier off-stage attire just as her husband, Paul Simon emerges from Martin’s dressing room, and for a moment it’s easy to forget that these are Those People.
The Steep Canyon Rangers (Mike Guggino, Woody Platt, Nicky Sanders, Charles Humphrey III, and Graham Sharp), who know Martin as just one of the guys now, are seemingly poised to become stars in their own right as well, winning a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in February for their seventh record, Nobody Knows You, and the momentum for their original blend of jaunty and spirited bluegrass is only gaining more momentum.
But forget thinking there is any celebrity bad behavior, like Martin not showing up on time to rehearsal. “He’s the first one to have the banjo out of the case,” says banjo player Sharp who formed the band with his fellow University of North Carolina friends 14 years ago. At one point, for about six months at Caesar’s Head, the Steeps all moved into what Sharp describes as a “cinder block bunker without any plumbing” and went to work—honing their chops with the goal of being able to play music festivals. In 2000, they entered the Rocky Grass Festival in Boulder, Colorado, and won the competition. By 2001, they’d moved to Asheville (though two members live in Brevard), and instead of deciding that a music-heavy town like Nashville had to be where they moved, they found that Asheville’s own music community was thriving. “We wanted to retain more of our own identity,” explains Sharp, “and felt like staying home, we could do that.”
As close as Asheville is to Greenville, it’s amazing this firecracker band of seriously talented musicians (the fiddle player, Berklee-trained Sanders practically had smoke coming off his bow after an explosive solo the night of the show) is just up the street. For a group of friends who met as students and honed their skills in the dives of Chapel Hill to winning Grammy Awards, and recording their latest album (the wonderful Tell the Ones I Love, out on Rounder, September 10) at the late Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York, life must seem like a wild and crazy ride—especially when it sometimes includes poker night at a particular wild and crazy guy’s house.