What the Huck!
By Robert Kreutzer
The Steep Canyon Rangers don’t need no stinkin‘ celebrities at this annual Mark Twain-themed jubilee
It’s OK—go ahead and talk to Charles Humphrey about Steve Martin.
Humphrey is the bass player for the bluegrass group The Steep Canyon Rangers. Though far from unknown, the group’s visibility hit warp 10 when occasional bluegrass picker and somewhat well-known comedian named Steve Martin hooked up with the band.
Their collaboration yielded several high-profile gigs in 2009 and 2010, including Carnegie Hall, the Bonnaroo music festival and the coolest music show on TV, Later with Jools Holland. The group will play some more shows with Martin later this summer.
The Steep Canyon Rangers will be one of the headlining acts at the Huck Finn Jubilee, which happens this Father’s Day weekend at the Mojave Narrows Regional Park in Victorville. Featuring mostly country and bluegrass music, other performers will include the Gatlin Brothers and the Seldom Scene. There are also a variety of other activities at including contests and music workshops. The festival seeks to recreate the middle America of Mark Twain’s day.
Sometimes, it can get a little touchy when so much attention is focused on a celebrity who temporarily jumped aboard. Humphrey says the talk about Martin, who is not an actual member of the band, is all good.
“We’re happy to talk about it,” says Humphrey, talking on telephone from his home in Ashville, North Carolina. “He met us at a party and had seen us at festivals and just loved the way our music sounded. “We’re just glad it worked out so well for both sides.”
Martin, who has a long and well-known taste for traditional American music, cut an album with SCR, Rare Bird Alert. The album nearly cracked the top 40 on Billboard’s album chart, almost unthinkable for a bluegrass release. Martin also got SCR hooked up with some friends of his—Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks. Humphrey says the reason the group attracts so many high profile guests is simple.
“We’re nice guys,” Humprey says. “We’re professional musicians and we like to make good music.” The rest of the band consists of Mike Guggino on Mandolin and vocals, Woody Platt on guitar, Nicky Sanders on fiddle and Graham Sharp on banjo and vocals.
It should quickly be noted, however, that the SCR don’t need no stinkin‘ celebrities. The group had built a strong following long before the hook-up with Martin. The band is very popular in the usual bluegrass and folk circles, but performing at festivals like Bonnaroo (and some well-chosen Grateful Dead covers) has also gained SCR cred with jam rockers.
Just because the Steep Canyon Rangers music is old-tyme doesn’t mean the way they connect to their fans is.
The group has a Youtube channel and has just released a series of webisodes called Meet the Steeps. The series features five video profiles of the band members. SRC recently performed a free web concert in which 800 people logged in. Fans were also able to type in questions. It’s all part of what a bluegrass has to do to make it, 21st-century style.
“We’re all educated people and the whole industry is evolving,” Humphrey explains. “It always has, going from albums to tapes to CDs to digital downloads, and we have to evolve with the industry, even more so now. It gives fans instant access, to the point where fans can feel like they’re part of the band. We think all that is great and we’re trying to embrace that.”
This doesn’t mean the old ways are all dead though. The band will also continue to build its fan base the low-tech way—getting out and making face time with its fans.
“We’re still part of a genre that is small compared to others,” says Humphrey, “so we’re still playing festivals and clubs. It’s a grass-rootsy way to connect. To really grow a band you have to have a national presence, and to do that you still have to pay your dues on the road.”
The Steep Canyon Raiders at the Huck Finn Jubilee at Mojave Narrows Regional Park, 18000 Yates Rd., Victorville; (951) 780-8810; huckfinn.com. Fri-Sun, June 15-17.