(Steep Canyon Rangers)
By Jim Roberts
Mike Ashworth grew up in North Carolina with members of the Steep Canyon Rangers, but he didn’t officially join the band until 2013, the same year they won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. In the 10 years since, the band has released eight albums, including a live recording with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and Ashworth has evolved from a percussionist to a jack-of-all-trades multi-instrumentalist.
The band will perform on Saturday, June 10 at the American Theatre in Hampton as part of the three-day Brews & Bluegrass Festival. Ashworth has been to Hampton before; he told Veer Magazine he and bandmate Mike Guggino road-tripped to “the Mothership” to see Phish in the 1990s. Here are more highlights from the conversation.
Veer: When you think about bluegrass, you don’t necessarily think of a drummer sitting in the back of the band.
Ashworth: “I tried to keep my footprint really small when I joined. It was sort of a nervous moment for me because I didn’t know what the hardcore Steep Canyon Ranger fans would think. I just brought this sort of unique instrument to the band that was this little box, and I still play it occasionally.”
VEER: So what other instruments are you on now?
Ashworth: On any night, I’ll probably play dobro, guitar, banjo. Some nights, I’ll play the bass. I used to play the mandolin. … It’s really cool to be able to be in that position. I’m just trying to support the song is all I’m doing.
I grew up learning to play the drums. But in the late ’90s, I just fell in love with the string band. There was that movement in America. It wasn’t our first folk movement, but to me, in my life, it was the one that really pushed me over the edge to sort of explore that world. It’s really cool in the last 10 years to be able to join the two worlds. We now have layers that other string bands don’t have. I mean, we have a power that almost isn’t fair. We can reach highs and lows now that were not accessible before. The dynamic range is completely different now for the band.
Veer: Are you promoting new music right now?
Ashworth: Yeah. We found this old lodge on top of a mountain that has eight bedrooms. We brought in equipment from Nashville, Tennessee, and Dave Sinko—a fantastically talented engineer—and Darrell Scott—our producer. We stayed in this place for a week. It’s a bed and breakfast, but we used it like a studio. We had equipment in every room almost. We thought that would be nicer than having a studio with controlled hours. We ended up finishing that record in January or February. It’s scheduled for release in the fall, and we are very excited about it.
Of course, Darrell Scott is a genius. He’s got us singing parts we never would have thought of, but they’re very natural. We had most of the stuff arranged for these tunes, but he would just come in with a little nugget, and it would just spark the whole thing up. You know, he’s really good at what he does. … It’s called ‘Morning Shift.’ You’ll start hearing about it in the summer, I reckon. We’re very proud of it. It’s a pretty cool record.
Veer: What has the relationship with Steve Martin done for the band?
Ashworth: It’s done a lot for introducing people to the band. But you know, I’d say more what it’s done is it’s helped us learn to read people. Steve is a master performer. He can feel the rhythm and the energy in a room like no one else I’ve ever met in my life, and we’ve taken a lot from him over the years as far as performance—how to time things and how to weave things in. He’s like a master boxer or something. It’s incredible to watch him play with timing. But aside from that, he’s also this brilliant musician. At 77, he still is just one of the greatest Scruggs-style and clawhammer banjo guys.
More than giving us audience members, I think Steve has given us the gift of: What is the performing arts if you boil it down and find its truest essence? What does it mean to stand in front of an audience and give them a good show? I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve gotten from him. That’s more important than ticket sales.
Veer: What else do you want people to know about the band? What would you say that you’ve not had an opportunity to say?
Ashworth: I do have a hope for the people of Hampton—that they come away from the show really seeing how much we love what we do and how much we love each other. That’s part of the experience when you go see a Rangers show: the chemistry. I don’t think it’s hard to pick up on, and I don’t think it’s hard to pick up on the fact that we’re in the moment so much as well.
What happens in Hampton is a totally unique thing—not just the order of the songs, but the way everything is played. We’ve brought in a bigger element of improv in the past five years. We can weave songs together where we’re a pretty nimble machine. We can just put two songs on the setlist, and we’ll make them work together somehow. If we have to change key and change tempo, we just do it on the fly. I think a large part of that comes from the chemistry that we have developed over the decades of knowing each other and making music together in many different forms.
The show is kind of a reflection of who we are on that day or that week or that month. It’s always a different show. You’ll never catch the same show twice. … I hope the folks in Hampton enjoy the show because it’ll only be for them. The next night, it’ll be a totally different approach.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers will perform as part of the Bluegrass & Brew Festival at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 10 at the American Theatre in Hampton. The festival will also include performances by Dailey & Vincent on June 9 and Carbon Leaf on June 11. Ticket prices for all shows start at $35. For tickets or more information, visit hamptonarts.org.