If bluegrass music has an equivalent to the relationship Bob Dylan enjoyed with the Band, it might be in the partnership that has developed between Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Dylan famously brought on the future members of the Band — originally known as the Hawks — to be his backing band on his 1965 and 1966 tours in which he plugged in and went electric, a move that sparked loud objections from some fans of his solo acoustic folk music.
In 1967, Dylan and the Band began an extended writing and recording session that produced songs that eventually emerged in 1975 on “The Basement Tapes” double album and a 2014 6-CD box set documenting more than 100 songs committed to tape during that time. Dylan and the Band then reunited in 1974 for an extensive tour that produced the live album, “Before the Flood.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers had been a band for some nine years and had released five albums when they met Martin and were selected by the comedian/banjo player to be his backing band on a tour to promote Martin’s bluegrass album, the 2009 release “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.”
A decade later, the collaboration still is going strong, with the Steep Canyon Rangers having gone on several tours with Martin.
A capacity crowd heard the band perform with the “wild and crazy guy” for Hancher Auditorium’s gala reopening Sept. 24, 2016. Just shy of two years later, the ensemble — without Martin — is returning to play for a potentially larger crowd in a free concert Sept. 14 on the Hancher Green in Iowa City.
These outdoor concerts have become a new tradition to welcome University of Iowa students and everyone else who totes chairs, blankets and dancing shoes for an evening of musical merriment. Food trucks will be selling their wares in Hancher’s parking lot or revelers can bring their own picnics. If rain or storms threaten everyone’s safety, the concert will be canceled. That news will be announced on Hancher’s website and Facebook page.
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The Steep Canyon Rangers’ collaboration with Martin has extended to two more albums, the latest of which is last year’s “The Long-Awaited Album.” Several band members also played on “Love Has Come for You,” the album Martin and Edie Brickell released in 2013.
Looking back, mandolin player Mike Guggino said the timing to start working with Martin was ideal for his group. The Steep Canyon Rangers — which also includes guitarist/singer Woody Platt, banjo player/singer Graham Sharp, fiddle player Nicky Sanders, drummer Mike Ashworth and new bassist Barrett Smith (replacing Charles Humphrey III) — was established enough in the bluegrass world to be seen as a viable band on its own. But the musicians were still in a place where an association with a big name like Martin would help them grow their audience and not deflect too much attention away from their own career.
“I think if we had met him years later, it might not have been a good idea,” Guggino said. “I think we met him just at the right time when we were popular enough and good enough to be able to do the gig and bring something to the table, but not so popular and whatever that it would have been a bad choice to not do our stuff. And it really did help boost our career, for sure.”
And yes, the Steep Canyon Rangers continues to make albums and do its own shows between touring and recording commitments with Martin. The group has just released its 10th studio album, “Out in the Open,” and will be spending this winter and spring headlining shows as well as being the backing band for Martin and fellow comedian/actor/singer Martin Short, who bring a mix of comedy and music to the stage in their shows.
For “Out in the Open,” the Rangers worked with a noted producer who isn’t from the bluegrass world: Joe Henry. Going into the recording, Henry proposed an approach rarely used these days. He wanted the Steep Canyon Rangers to record completely live — including the vocals — with no overdubbing.
Guggino said the band knew that could be a challenge.
“You’ve got to get every solo, every little backup lick, every harmony vocal, and you all have to do it at the same time. If somebody messes up, the whole take is gone,” he said.
It turned out to be an effective way to record the songs, capturing the energy and fire of the group’s live show.
What also helps “Out in the Open” is that the band’s songwriting is strong throughout the dozen songs. The album continues the Steep Canyon Rangers’ move toward a broader acoustic sound that, while rooted in bluegrass, draws from other genres. Highly melodic tunes like the easygoing “Farmers And Pharaohs” and “Roadside Anthems” are as much pop and Americana as any other genre. The title song, a deliberately paced, harmonica-spiced track, leans old-time country, while the lovely ballads “Going Midwest” and “Best Of Me” have a timeless country sound. And even songs that have a good bit of bluegrass (“Let Me Out Of This Town” and “Love Harder”) have richer melodies than you might expect in that genre.
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Guggino said the bandmates are so pleased with “Out in the Open” that they have been playing the entire album during their headlining shows, while selections from their previous couple of albums fill out most of the rest of the set.
“Our style has changed so much over the last few years, kind of evolved to where it is now,” he said. “We just want to play more of the newer stuff that sounds like that, than the older stuff that doesn’t have that same kind of vibe going on.”
WHAT: Steep Canyon Rangers
WHERE: Hancher Green, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sept. 14
EXTRAS: Bring chairs, blankets, picnics or buy from food trucks stationed in Hancher Parking Lot
WEATHER: The concert will be canceled if rain and/or storms could endanger people’s safety; it will not move into Hancher Auditorium. The cancellation would be announced at Hancher.uiowa.edu/2018-19/SCanyonRangers and on Hancher’s Facebook page.
BAND’S WEBSITE: Steepcanyon.com