The Asheville, North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers are, at heart, a bluegrass band. Though their music certainly dips its toes into country, Americana, and folk rock, they play acoustic instruments traditional to bluegrass music. The band has been together for over 20 years, and about a decade ago, they discovered a love and excitement for performing in collaboration with symphony orchestras.
Steep Canyon Rangers have collaborated with actor and banjoist, Steve Martin, over the past several years and it was through Martin that they had their first introduction to the symphony world. Martin was asked to compose some music for an animated Thanksgiving movie. He brought on composer Jonathan Sacks, known for such projects as the Academy Award-winning scores to Monster’s Inc. and Toy Story 3, as well as Seabiscuit, the two X-Files movies, Meet the Parents, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Lethal Weapon 3, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and more. Steep Canyon Rangers flew out to Los Angeles to record the music with Martin, which is where they met Sacks for the first time. After performing alongside Martin with orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the band asked Jonathan Sacks to compose arrangements of their own original music to perform with orchestras across the country. The pairing of bluegrass music—which is essentially string band music—with an orchestra has proven to be a perfect match, and the Steep Canyon Rangers have since performed with the Cincinnati Pops, Brevard Philharmonic, North Carolina Symphony, and many more.
When asked about engaging their local communities in non-classical performance, Travis Creed, Vice President & General Manager, Artistic Operations at the Winston Salem Symphony had this to say, “I think many of us that program for orchestras are looking for authenticity. The symphonic pops programs are a unique opportunity for orchestras to reach parts of their community that might not be interested in coming to see the traditional repertoire. The majority of pops offerings are often populated with tribute acts, renditions of a certain genre, or golden oldies. So, it is incredibly refreshing to see bands like Steep Canyon Rangers taking the stage with a full symphonic orchestra behind them. Symphony fans get to experience something new by having the actual band itself in front of their local orchestra, and fans of the band get to hear them in a unique way. The breaking down of musical barriers and stereotypes should be a focus of every orchestral organization, and seeing a high-level bluegrass band blend seamlessly with an orchestra featuring top notch charts is a win for everyone involved. Steep Canyon Rangers always sell well for us, bring in new audiences, and we regularly hear from our audiences that they want them back!”
Pushing their musical collaboration further, Steep Canyon Rangers paired up with their hometown orchestra, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, and R&B legends Boyz II Men to record the song “Be Still Moses” together. They enlisted Michael Bearden, an accomplished two-time Emmy-nominated music director, keyboardist, arranger, conductor, and composer for a diverse range of musical superstars, to arrange the music, and eventually conduct a live performance at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, TN with members of the Ashville Symphony.
Hailing from North Carolina’s Appalachian and Piedmont regions, the Rangers have long held traditional bluegrass paramount, while possessing the ability to bring it down the mountain and incorporate influences from all walks of the region. With their last few albums, the Rangers have gained recognition well beyond the world of bluegrass, earning a reputation as some of the most influential songwriters in Americana today. They have truly been inspired by collaboration with talented classical musicians during symphony shows.
“Playing these orchestra shows is so invigorating—they breathe such life into our songs. With the power of an orchestra behind us and that sound washing over us out into the audience, you feel like you’re in the middle of a movie score. We can achieve higher highs and lower lows, and infinitely more depth and breadth than we can on our own. It’s a special thing.” – Mike Guggino, Mandolinist, Steep Canyon Rangers.