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A New Version of Old-Style Bluegrass 

N.C.'s Steep Canyon Rangers put own spin on the traditional

You can call them bluegrass virgins. Even though some of them grew up in the N.C. mountains surrounded by 'grass, for the Steep Canyon Rangers, it's their first time playing the music as a band. The only prior musical experience banjoist Graham Sharp had was playing in the high school jazz band.

"I really wasn't interested in bluegrass," says Sharp, a Greensboro native now living in Asheville. But as soon as he started listening to the music, he started playing it. "I had some real good experiences at bluegrass festivals," he says, calling in from Asheville. "The whole parking lot picking environment got me turned on to playing."

The band got together when Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and bassist Charles Humphrey were freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By the time they graduated in '99, they had picked up mandolinist Mike Guggino and fiddler Lizzie Hamilton (later replaced by Californian Nicky Sanders) and regularly played gigs around Chapel Hill.

The band officially turned pro in '01 with the release of Old Dreams and New Dreams, produced by New Grass Revival founding member Curtis Burch. Currently, their fifth album, '07s Lovin' Pretty Women, is ranked at number 11 in its third week on the Billboard music charts.

The band has made an impression on peers and fans alike, winning the International Bluegrass Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year award in 'O6 and having the honor of every member of the band being nominated for Instrumentalist of the Year for this year's awards.

"I hadn't listened to a lot of acoustic music before I got into bluegrass," says Sharp, who writes most of the group's music. "The direct nature of acoustic music is what got me hooked." The band invested a great deal of time honing their instrumental skills, but in recent shows, their close-knit vocal harmony is just as impressive. "I'd rather sing a number than pick it now," Sharp admits. "I just like that direct, big bunch of voices coming at ya."

That big bunch of voices is most impressive on gospel music. What's even more impressive is even though they sound like they came out of some dusty hymn book, they're originals. "Be Still Moses," from the new album, sounds like some venerable black gospel staple. "I wrote the song," Sharp says. And though he agrees the tune has the sound of an old spiritual, even he was surprised at the final outcome. "The vocal part at the end of it was something our producer put on there after we had recorded our parts," he says of the call and response interplay between band members. "I liked it the way it came out, but it's not the way we do it live."

Live or on record, the band specializes in playing new material that sounds old. "Lovin' Pretty Women," the title cut from the latest release written by Sharp, resonates with old-time feeling. Humphrey's "Pick up the Blues" sounds like it just jumped out of Bill Monroe's hands.

But the band is willing to bend the bluegrass format a bit. "We like to go between styles," Sharp says, citing the gospel the band has on record, mixed in with honky-tonk and country. The title track from '05s One Dime at a Time, a number one hit on the bluegrass charts a year ago, is pure hard rockin' honky-tonk with a banjo break. In stark contrast is Sharp's "Call The Captain," on the new release, which he describes as an Americana-flavored song. "We try to focus on giving every song its character and being willing to change the formula for every song."

The formula also includes a few covers of traditional bluegrass. "We like to keep a good mix with it, cause people like to hear songs they've heard before," Sharp says. Live, Bill Monroe's "Tennessee Blues," features mandolinist Mike Guggino picking like Monroe at the height of his powers. Guitarist Woody Platt jumps in with his best Jerry Douglas imitation, flat-pickin' like a demon.

"We write all kinds of different kinds of songs, and we're up for giving almost any song a try that somebody writes," Sharp says. "I think it's a good thing, a good exercise putting together different sort of songs."

Although the band continues to flex their musical muscles, that doesn't mean they'll string just anything together. "I don't see us doing anything like a jam type of thing," Sharp says. "Maybe in terms of introducing songs that are a little bit different -- I don't see stretching it too far."

The Steep Canyon Rangers play the Neighborhood Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 3, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12. Moonshine Racers open.

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