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Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers | Interview
Cris Cohen interviews Graham Sharp of Steep Canyon Rangers. They discuss:
The new song "Sweet Spot" and its serving as a sendoff for Woody
Lyrics like "Too early to call / too late to call sober"
Performing "Be Still Moses" with a symphony and Boyz II Men
Meshing his banjo playing with Steve Martin's banjo playing (Yes, that Steve Martin)
"Try to love your way through the hardest situations"
You can also watch the video of the interview.
Cris Cohen: I wanted to start off with the newest single, “Sweet Spot.” When you put that together, was it always your intention to have everyone take a turn at the lead vocals with that? Because that's kind of unusual.
Graham Sharp: No, it wasn’t the idea at first. But it was about as simple and as quick of a song that I’ve ever come up with. The song doesn't really change the whole way through. It just kind of stays right about here.
A few things were coming together. I had just sketched out the idea for it, and when Woody was leaving, we wanted to do one send-off song together. It seemed like, thematically, “Sweet Spot” was a good one for that. It just happened to be a confluence of a few different factors: The song was ready, Woody was leaving, and we wanted a way to maybe make a sort of auditory bridge. So, Woody sings some, Barrett sings some, I sing some, Mike sings some. It’s not quite a passing of the torch, but just a way to add some continuity into the whole idea.
So, it seemed to work on a lot of levels. And just as a song, I think when you have a song that stays pretty much the same all the way through, it adds some interest if you layer in some different voices as it goes along.
Cris Cohen: I’ve since heard the recording, but my first introduction was at That Music Festival when you guys played it live. And especially live, it definitely has that — because everyone is physically taking a turn, stepping forward — it makes it visually interesting, as well as sonically interesting.
Graham Sharp: When we were first in the band’s infancy - and even still we make it a part of our live shows - I don’t know if we did it at That Music Festival, but we’d just kind of crowd around one microphone. And it’s the same sort of thing. You get the visual, you see the person who’s taking the solo step up to the microphone, the person who’s singing step in, or who’s singing harmony.
So, I really like that part about the show. It’s something that our band can do. We’re lucky to have different voices in the band. So, it’s neat to pass it around and see what different characters have to say. That's something we’re trying to think about a little more.
Cris Cohen: So, a couple of years back I interviewed Dave from Chatham County Line, and I was fascinated because, like you guys, they're one of the few bands I’ve ever seen that do that single mic thing. He said they learned a lot from learning how to self-modulate and things like that. How did it affect your style, your sound, your way of performing, as you had to learn to all use just one microphone?
Graham Sharp: Well, it was a very precise way of learning bluegrass. Everything is very much in its spot. If A moves to A’s spot and starts to do something different, if they move to what B is doing, then B needs to move to A, whether it’s playing a lead or a rhythm role, or some sort of backing role like that, or just laying out entirely.
So, when you think about it visually, or even how it just physically functions on a single mic, you mirror all that you’re doing musically physically with your bodies. And also, with your instrument, just how hard or how lightly you’re playing. There’s nowhere to hide any of it. So, I think that put a really fine point on what we were trying to do… early days as a band, playing bluegrass and just being very precise with it.
Take inspiration when it hits you
Cris Cohen: In terms of songwriting, you had an interesting line where you said, “One of my favorite things about songwriting is that you have to keep your eyes open and take inspiration when it hits you.” What have been some of the awkward moments when inspiration hit, in terms of songwriting, and how did you deal with it?
Graham Sharp: You have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself. Just yesterday I was like… we’re visiting this community out here in Colorado. I had an idea for a way of singing a song in my head, so I had to go out and walk around the neighborhood and sing it out loud. You get funny looks and things like that. I think, in general -- and my wife is well-accustomed to it now -- it’s just kind of a glazing over, when something is in your head.
She’s like, “You’re thinking about a song.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, I have to go write this down or record this on my phone or something.”
Cris Cohen: That reminds me - I had read a piece about Tom Petty… And this was before things like iPhones. He put small hand-held tape recorders in every room of his house, because he said you never know when an idea is going to strike, and you just have to have something to record it with.
Graham Sharp: The iPhone is a great tool for that. I remember hearing one story of John Hartford, who’d wear a fishing vest with tons of pockets, and he’d have scraps of different songs in all the pockets. And as he would think of stuff, he’d pull it out and add a bit of something to this song and put it back. I love that.
Cris Cohen: One of the bands I work with is The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Kim Wilson said, old songs or uncompleted songs, they're like old cars - you just keep them in the yard for spare parts. And Barrett suggested you always have stuff going in different stages of completion. So, that makes me wonder, sans fishing vest, how do you keep track of all of that?
Graham Sharp: Well, a couple of ways. For the most part, writing for me is really accumulation. You might have a couple of good ideas and put down a bit, but I really like the process of learning what a song is about over a period of time. That's generally more the way it works out for me. A really fortunate position to be in as a songwriter is to be in a band, a steady working band, where you can really download a lot of stuff to people in the band, and it can kind of be bouncing around in their heads a little bit as well.
So, they’ll come back with something maybe six months later. They’ll play a melody in the dressing room, and you’re like, “Oh! Yeah that. Remember that?”
As a songwriter, that's the coolest thing in the world, to have talented people, you plant a little bit in their brain, let it gestate, and then, when the time is ready, they can kind of come back to it. That happens a lot. People are just like, “Remember this? What happened to this song?”
“Oh yeah. I don’t know what happened to that song.”
So, it’s a fine line to walk as a songwriter, especially in a band. You don’t want to be too pushy. You don’t want to tell people what they're going to like and what they need to do. But I also always get uncomfortable when I feel like we’re not really actively growing and pushing ourselves in that way. So, it’s a balance that I think we’ve learned to walk. But everybody can tell when I start to get antsy about it.
Cris Cohen: That must be the thing within a band - it’s great that you can welcome many ideas, but there still has to be someone that's judge and jury, that says “This is how this song is going to go.” And maybe for some bands it changes from song to song, depending on who the owner is.
Barrett, he didn’t say what it was, but he said you’re working on a song for the new album. He said it started going down this really dark path, and that you pulled them back and said, “No, we have enough dark material. We need to make this one a little more happy.” But it sounds like there’s never any conflict with that.
Graham Sharp: It’s interesting. Everybody has a different way they want to characterize a song. For me, I think I know the one Barrett was talking about. I was like, “No, listen to the chorus. This is happy. This is redeeming. Let’s put a beat under this and make it something people can move to.”
There’s also the side where it’s, “Hey, look at this. We can make it this beautiful, heartbreaking dirge-like thing almost.”
I guess the final decision is very much a democracy, as far as that goes. I love having a song that we’ve tossed around, and we can play three different iterations of it. I think that's really neat. And I love the idea of, “You take this song and see what you can do with it.” (Turning to another person) “And you take this same song and see what you can do with it.” Maybe we’ll meet in the middle. Or maybe we’ll say A is better and B is gone. But I think, in the end, it brings a lot.
So, I think balancing that preparedness with a song, and then also having songs where it’s totally spur-of-the-moment, I think both those things are valuable. There’s a couple of songs on our last record that we did just right in the moment. And I think “Sweet Spot” falls into that. Nobody really knew the song that well. Half the people in the band didn’t know the song at all before we came and recorded it. And I think sometimes just capturing a little bit of that fresh perspective does a service to the songs as well.
“Too early to call / Too late to call sober”
Cris Cohen: Speaking of the last album, “Arm In Arm”, During the show you talked about how you were playing “In The Next Life,” and how you were searching for that third verse, and came up with it while you were on tour in Australia. It has that great turn of phrase -- and I’m probably going to absolutely blow it -- it’s something to the effect of, “Too early to call / Too late to call sober”.
Graham Sharp: That's pretty much it, yeah.
Cris Cohen: With lines like that, which… I mean, they sound simple, but there’s a lot packed into a line like that. How much of that is inspiration, and how much of that is writing and rewriting, and “I’ve got to get this right”?
Graham Sharp: I think just being in the mindset where you can just catch inspiration. I just try to keep myself to a point of preparedness where I feel sharp as a songwriter, or just an observer. So, when something like that comes along, you can say, yeah, that's the right thing. That means a couple of things right here. And it could mean a few things to different people.
I generally tend towards that kind of line where, like you were saying, you can unpack it or not as much as you want. I think a lot of it is really carving off the excess from lines and trying to get down to what it’s really trying to say. And especially in a song like that, it’s all about simplify, simplify, simplify.
First self-produced album
Cris Cohen: And with “Arm In Arm”, this is the first album that you guys self-produced. What did you learn from that experience that you didn’t know before producing? From suddenly being in the producer’s chair and having that perspective?
Graham Sharp: The one biggest takeaway that I got from making that record was, when you stop listening to yourself and start listening more intently to everybody else and what’s going on around you, you're probably going to be happier with what you do than if you’re really listening and focusing so hard on what you’re doing. And I just remembered multiple times in that session -- and I don’t know if it has anything to do with who’s sitting in the producer’s chair -- but when you don’t have somebody saying what’s good and giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, I think, just as much as you can tune in to the people around you who are making the music, then you get a pretty good idea of what’s working and what’s not.
Cris Cohen: And do you think that will influence how you write and how you play, going forward?
Graham Sharp: I think so. Everything goes in phases, but right now I really just like songs that, like “Sweet Spot”, just have a nice groove to them. I don’t know. I’ve really just been wanting stuff that you can just put on and nod your head to and feel good. Like I said, if you want to get in deep and scratch the surface and think a lot about it, you can, but you can also just bob your head to it.
Boyz II Men
Cris Cohen: And you guys do have a number of those types of songs in your repertoire. They’ve had all these interesting second lives, double lives, in the sense of… you’ve played with symphonies. You’ve collaborated with Boyz II Men. I think it speaks to the fluidity that your songs can have. Although maybe written from more of a bluegrass perspective, it clearly resonates in different ways. But as a result, do you try and write with, “Okay, this can be adaptable” or “This is one of those songs anyone can run with”, or is that just overthinking things?
Graham Sharp: I definitely am aware when I’m writing songs if I’m creating something that's going to be complicated, that's going to really involve a lot of different movements and parts. And those are the songs that seem to work best with the symphony. When we’re doing stuff with the symphony, we tend towards the songs that have a little bit more to them. So, it just allows the symphony to sort of have a greater range, as far as what they're doing. In general, the more straight-ahead bluegrass songs don’t really leave the symphony a lot of room to use all the textures that they have at their disposal. So, I do think, at times, within the band, that the band itself has the ability to capture a lot of those different textures. So, I’ll write things and say, the mandolin will sound fantastic kicking this off in a really aggressive way, and just have it in my head. And whether that's where that ends up or not, I think it’s helpful at the start of the writing process to have that feel for the band in mind.
Cris Cohen: And have those experiences with the symphony and Boyz II Men changed how you’ve viewed those particular songs, going forward?
Graham Sharp: I don’t think so. The Boyz II Men thing was… It’s all just so ridiculously gratifying, as a writer, to hear these different situations, and working to some degree, and hear Boyz II Men sing a song that you pretty much wrote riding down across town in the car. And they sing it and it’s just… It’s heavenly. The same with the symphony. You have just this little idea, and all of a sudden, it’s the horn section playing this little inkling of an idea you had some time, and all of a sudden it’s made beautiful by this unbelievable section behind you. So, those things are just so gratifying, really.
Cris Cohen: In terms of collaborating with people, also on “Arm In Arm”, the song “Take My Mind”, where you have Oliver Wood and Michael Bearden with you in the studio, both massively talented, but very different talents… How does one direct or wrangle all of that into such a cohesive piece? You have an abundance of riches, and I don’t know how you filter that down.
Graham Sharp: Right. That was really an example of just being ready to catch lightning when it struck. We were in the studio. Michael Bearden had been at the Boyz II Men show the night before in Nashville. We had done “Be Still Moses” with a small symphony, with the chart that Michael Bearden had written, and he was conducting. So, he just came by the studio the next morning, and we sort of cajoled him a little bit. Like, “Oh. There's a piano. Why don’t you sit down and check out the piano?”
He sat down and checked out the piano. As he was doing that, the engineer, Brandon, took a microphone and mic’d up the piano. And we all silently slid into our seats, got our instruments, put our headphones on, and just basically started jamming this song. We went through it once and went, “Oh, let’s do that one more time.” We went through it again, and that was the song. What’s on the record is just a live recording, maybe the second time through it with Michael.
So, it’s really neat to be able to be in a band where the six of us can speak the language and see where everyone is going. It makes it really easy to incorporate somebody else, because we can just lay this foundation down, and just let them be themselves on top of that.
Cris Cohen: And also, in terms of collaboration, you occasionally have a second banjo player that sits in with you, named Steve Martin. Rumor has it he has a successful career as an actor as well.
What I’m wondering… the banjo, especially the way you guys play, is a busy instrument. It’s not just three chords here and there. How do you guys work out how to have two banjos going simultaneously, and not step on each other?
Graham Sharp: A lot of it has been an education for me in how to play the banjo when I’m not playing the banjo, how I’m used to playing the banjo. I don’t want to double what the guitars do. And I don’t want to double what the mandolins do. I want to do something in-between. A lot of the times on the banjo, it’s almost like an accompaniment, like a piano would do. And there are times when I would play harmony when he’s playing a melody.
But a lot of times it’s just kind of recognizing that there does need to be some space in the music, and two banjos firing at once is, in general, too much. It’s been an education for me in how to build some space into my playing. Steve’s compositions are just fantastic. He writes songs like nobody else does. He’s got a very unique voice on the instrument, so it’s been a neat body of music to learn, especially as another banjo player, watching where all this stuff comes from in his unbelievable imagination.
Cris Cohen: What’s also interesting is, it’s one of those things where you realize, oh, two people playing the same instrument, you can definitely hear the different personalities in each person’s playing. Even if they're tuned the same and all that. I guess, in that way, it is kind of fascinating to hear. It does sound like two different people playing at the same time, and not like it’s double-tracked or something.
Graham Sharp: Steve has so much personality in his playing. Among a lot of really great banjo players in the world, Steve’s a player who you hear and go, yeah, that's Steve playing. It’s neat to work with somebody like that. And he has a very different approach to it than I do, so it works.
Love your way through the hardest situations
Cris Cohen: Another line that caught me when I was doing research on this is… I was reading up on the song “Honey On My Tongue” from “Arm In Arm”, and the video is probably one of the coolest home movies I think I’ve ever seen. It’s just really sweet. I was like, wow, I wish I had written a song like that. But in one of your interviews about that song, and the advice you’ve tried to instill in your kids, the advice that you give is, “Try to love your way through the hardest situations.” The past couple of years with the COVID lockdown has been extremely hard for musicians, and the music industry in general. How did you “love your way” through that difficulty?
Graham Sharp: Well, a lot of that was being able to accept love and accept that you’re in a place where it was hard to be your best. It was really hard to feel like you were really able to do what you needed to do. To take care of your family, to take care of oneself. And you see all the work you’ve been doing put on hold and maybe go up in smoke to some degree, but definitely put on hold.
So, I think, as far as that, for me it was just being able to accept it, when you’re maybe not feeling like you’re at your best, or like you’re still capable of doing something that's worthy. Those are the moments when I felt most at peace during that, when I felt like I was still getting something out of the time, and my time at home was not just worthwhile, but was unique and wonderful in a lot of ways.
Cris Cohen: And it also makes me wonder -- because this band in particular has had some unique experiences that a lot of bands don’t get to have, collaborating with artists like Boyz II Men, who are very different from you guys, symphonies and things of that nature -- the music industry is not the most solid career path in the world. It’s a challenge.
And to go into it as a bluegrass band doesn’t exactly increase your odds of success in that area. And so, since you didn’t plan out all of these interesting things that have happened, what was your expectation when you started the band? Like, “We can definitely achieve this, and this is what we’re going for.”
Graham Sharp: It’s definitely been stair-stepping goals as it went along. When we started, we just wanted to be able to play a handful of songs and just hang out in a kitchen or a living room and just play this music, because we were all new to it and we were all thunderstruck a little bit. That was goal one. We played a little show at Linda’s in Chapel Hill, or somewhere like that.
A few years down the road, we were still madly in love with it, and we were playing little gigs here and there. So, you go and win a little band competition, and take the next step and the next step. We were fortunate that, when we started the band, we didn’t really have a whole lot of obligations. We were single. We were all happy to sleep on a floor somewhere, that kind of thing.
We didn’t have those barriers to committing ourselves to it. Like, pull something together from scratch now, and put all the pressure on it that this has to sustain me and I have to pay my mortgage with this band. I don’t know if, artistically, anything could bear the weight of those expectations. So, it’s leveled up as we’ve gone along.
We’ve been really fortunate, in 20-something years, to keep on leveling up the band as our lives grew more complicated, and just in general more adult. It is hard. You look at a normal career track, and you say, well, I’d love to retire at 63 years old, but I don't want to. What is retiring? I’m not going to quit doing this. I don’t want to quit working on music, and playing on stage, and writing and that stuff. Retirement has no… It would be nice to slow down at times, but in general, there’s no end term on this. I feel like that validates the decision.
Cris Cohen: What would you advise guys that are starting out? There’s so much that's beyond your control. What’s the right mindset to go into all of this so that you’re not crushed because you’re not playing Carnegie Hall in your second year as a band?
Graham Sharp: Really, the only way I can speak to that is to try and find a situation that you absolutely love. Find people that you love doing it with, and if that's the case, if it’s meant to be, you’ll get there. And I think you’ll find out pretty quickly if the people you’re with and working with have the same level of expectation and the same commitment to it. But as long as you love it, continue to put in the work and the time.
There’s no shortcut that I know to getting there, other than putting in the time, putting in the hours. Whether it’s playing, writing, or doing business stuff… writing letters or whatever it is now that you need to get to that next step. We did it all. We hustled. We sent postcards to all the DJs. We gathered round as a band and made press kits to send out to people. We put in all the work on all those fronts.
That's really helpful as well, the business side. You need to pay some attention to that, if you’re serious about it. If you’re purely about the music, maybe the business side is something that you don’t need to worry about, but we’re really lucky to have people in the band who are really good with that and have no illusions that that's a big reason why we’re still doing it.
Releasing three albums in one year
Cris Cohen: In terms of being as prolific as you are, why did you guys release three albums in one year, instead of parsing them out? Again, going with the embarrassment of riches, you’d think you’d go, “Maybe this will buy us extra time.”
Graham Sharp: That’s a good question. It felt like they were three very different albums. There was the symphony album of all songs that we recorded before. There was a live record, which we had never done before, of all the North Carolina artists live from MerleFest. And then there was the studio album, which was a more traditional album for us of just new songs. I don’t know exactly, as far as how stuff got piled up, as far as the record companies and stuff like that go, but we had a decision in the midst of COVID: Do we want to put out a record in October of 2020?
And we made the record, and we were really excited about it, and felt like it was important to put this record out. And in hindsight it might not have been the best decision business-wise, but I feel like we weren’t ready to put that on ice and let it sit for a while. We felt like that was something we needed to say and go ahead and put it out there.
So, I think, against some advice, we decided to do that in the midst of COVID. And I don't regret it. If there were a couple of people who found a song on there in the dark hours of those winters, then it was worth it.
A roving electron
Cris Cohen: I don’t really have a question to go with this one, I just thought… I’ve read a lot of pieces where band members describe other band members. I’ve yet to find one as succinct and poetic as when you described Nicky as “a roving electron”. Which, if you’ve seen you guys perform, that is perfect.
Graham Sharp: Yes. He has the ability to light things up. And when we do these Steve Martin shows, they have a moment - I guess it’s a Broadway term -- they call it a 10:30 number. Two thirds of the way through the show, you need a musical number that just gets everybody on their feet. So, we do a fiddle song in the middle of the Steve Martin show that gets everybody on their feet.
And to have somebody in the band -- he’s talented in a lot of other ways, arranging and just the way he thinks through stuff melodically -- but just to have somebody who just has the ability and the energy to just flip a switch and light a fire on a live show… You don’t want to overplay it. It’s something we try to keep in our pockets as a card to play when we really want to have that effect.
But he’s a special player, and he’s a special guy. I’ve seen him mature so much over the years too, as how to not be noticed at a time. Because, when you're a player like that, it can be hard to sit back and let other things happen when you… I’ll say it like this: Most of us, when we get to a moment musically, we might have 10 options to go in the next five seconds. For somebody like Nicky, he has 10,000 options.
I understand how it can be hard for a mind like that to dial that back at times. I’ve seen him do that over the years, and it’s really a great thing as an ensemble.
What makes for a good Ranger?
Cris Cohen: You guys have had some personnel changes over the years. You’re on the cusp of yet another personnel change. What, in your opinion, makes for a good Ranger?
Graham Sharp: That's a good question. I think, first of all, it’s somebody we’re compatible with. The band started as a group of friends. So, it needs somebody who we’re all… We don’t have to be the same. I prefer it if we’re not all the same, and from the same background, and have the same views on everything. But we need to be able to connect, and we need to know that we’re feeling things in the same way.
For this next change we have coming up, we had tons and tons of singers send us demos. And it’s kind of a thing. When you hear someone connecting with a song, nothing else really matters. You can feel somebody’s heart in that moment. I want to work with this person, I want this person up here singing this song next to me every night, because they're connecting to it the way I’m connecting to it, and that's going to make for a good band, and great music.
So, it’s unique because we haven’t had to deal with a ton of changes, especially front-line changes, in a long time. So, what we’re looking at now is bringing in a new voice to the band. And it’s exciting. A couple of these demos, you hear it and you’re like… If you’re moved to tears, that's a really good sign. And I think we’re moving in that direction.
So, I’m really optimistic about it. Not quite ready to show all the cards on it. We’ve got some cool things coming up, and I’m as optimistic for the band musically as I’ve ever been. So, that feels like a good place. Like I said, I still love it as much as ever, and if a couple of these things come to fruition, I’m probably going to love it a lot more too.
Cris Cohen: It also makes me think… A few times I’ve interviewed Ben Sesar, who is the drummer for Brad Paisley, and he said something really wonderful one time. He said, “I’m far from being the best drummer in the world, but I think I’m the best drummer for this particular band.” And that sounds like part of the intangible that you also end up looking for.
Graham Sharp: It’s going to be hard to replace somebody like Woody. He’s been one of my best friends for 20-something years, and he still is, and he still will be. But I think, if you look at every time you do this with a band, it’s really an opportunity to take a step forward and find the best person for the band. It may not be the hottest guitar player or the person who can sing the highest. But if you can find that something that just touches the soul of the band, then I think that's something that we’ve always leaned on as a band, and where all our decisions have come from.
So, I think we’re aware of that decision making process, and we’re planning on sticking with that as long as we can hold out.
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