Interview: Steep Canyon Rangers Channel Live Energy Into Studio Magic on ‘Out in the Open’
For nearly two decades, the Steep Canyon Rangers have been recording albums and performing live; they've collaborated with bluegrass icons Steve Martin and Jerry Douglas, won a Grammy and a few IBMA Awards and topped the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart a handful of times. So, naturally, for their 10th studio album, the group decided to throw their playbook out the window, so to speak.
Recorded in three and a half days at Fidelitorium Recordings, an intimate studio owned and operated by legendary producer Mitch Easter, Out in the Open finds the Steep Canyon Rangers -- guitarist Woody Platt, banjo player Graham Sharp, newly arrived bassist Barrett Smith, mandolin player Mike Guggino, fiddler Nicky Sanders and Mike Ashworth on the box kit -- teaming up with producer Joe Henry and engineer and mixer Jason Richmond for a set of 12 songs that blend the their bluegrass stylings with pop, folk and jazz influences. Released Friday (Jan. 26), the band recorded the album live -- Henry's decision, and one that took the Rangers out of their comfort zone, despite being an experienced live band.
"His idea was that, as the album goes on, we're gonna build confidence and really get it flowing," Sharp tells The Boot. "It takes a lot of confidence and a lot of faith in each other to make a record like that."
Platt notes that Henry brought an "intellectual, introspective approach" to the album creation process -- "He almost came to the music with a spiritual approach," Platt reflects -- and encouraged the band to play as though it was just another show.
"It made for a really quick, fresh, fun recording process -- just us being us," Platt adds. "Anything we lost in minor imperfections, we gained in energy, authenticity, that kind of thing."
The band walked away from the recording process with a renewed emphasis on making every note count onstage.
"When you record that way, you have to be conscious of what you leave out as much as of what you put in ... It's tempting, when you're playing live, for everybody to just go, go, go, and that's kind of the natural instinct of a bluegrass band," Sharp explains, adding that Henry's recording method "[reminded us] that there's times when you can make space."
Adds Platt, "He really encouraged everybody to listen to the music as a whole -- listen to it as music right from the get-go rather than listening just to your part." Henry's influence is especially notable on "Going Midwest," Out in the Open's fifth track. Inspired by Sharp's most recent reading of The Great Gatsby, the song is simple ("about as simple as I know how to write a song," Sharp says), but it packs an incredible emotional punch. The version on the album is the band's very first take.
"It has total imperfections, but [Henry] was like, 'That put me in a place, and I'm not sure you can do that again,'" Platt recalls. Adds Sharp, "It was magical ... [We were] blown away by the emotion that was in it, and for us, that was really trusting Joe and his direction."
With Out in the Open, the Steep Canyon Rangers are hoping to see the same success as they have with previous projects, of course. But thanks to what Sharp describes as an "affirming" recording process, they're content with what they've created whether the accolades come or not.
Anything we lost in minor imperfections, we gained in energy, authenticity, that kind of thing.
"I would trade any No. 1s just for the feeling we had walking out of the studio when it was done," Sharp admits. "[We were] feeling like we'd really put forth our best effort and had, at the same time, gained a lot of confidence in ourselves and each other as a band by doing it the way we did."
They won't have to rely on reviews and press to determine the album's success, though: The Steep Canyon Rangers' 2018 tour calendar is already packed with show dates; lucky for them, since they recorded Out in the Open live, they don't need to worry about figuring out how to re-create their new material in a concert setting. All 12 songs are already in the band's setlists ("That's never happened to us before," Platt notes. "Sometimes songs never make the show."), and they're remembering what their studio time taught them.
"Our real strength as a band," Sharp says, "is really what we do right there, together."
Steep Canyon Rangers Share the Stories Behind Out in the Open's Songs