Why Steve Martin Picked Steep Canyon Rangers to Be His Backing Band

It’s about 2,100 miles from Graham Sharp’s home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina to the bright lights, incessant noise, and chaos of humanity along the Las Vegas Strip. Tonight, Sharp and his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, will take the stage in front of a packed house at the Encore Theater in the Wynn.

“It doesn’t feel strange to me — we kind of ate everything up one bite at a time,” the banjoist and de facto front man tells Rolling Stone backstage. “One little thing led to another and we’ve always tried to just get better, one show, one month, one year to the next.”

“It” refers to many things in the Rangers’ trajectory as one of the most sought-after groups in Americana, bluegrass, and indie-folk. It alludes to their almost 25 years together from humble beginnings in a college dorm; to a Grammy win and three nominations, and to increasingly sold-out audiences from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

And it also refers to a longtime collaboration with comedy masterminds Steve Martin and Martin Short. The Rangers are in Vegas to back the duo for a two-night run in their acclaimed vaudeville-inspired showcase, which initially came to fruition when Martin met the Rangers some 15 years ago.

“I have to compliment their comedy skills. It’s not easy to do what they do comedically, which is essentially stand there. They don’t mug; that would be a disaster,” Martin says in his dressing room tucked in the depths of the Wynn. “We’ve developed through the years this kind of relationship where I’m the big egomaniac and they tolerate me — and that’s played well.”

“Being a musician, I never thought I would be playing the Vegas Strip,” says mandolinist Mike Guggino.

Formed on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2000, the Steep Canyon Rangers were, at least early on, just a ragtag bunch of haphazard musicians looking to jam out on old bluegrass standards, maybe even book a gig or two.

The original lineup was Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt, and bassist Charles Humphrey, coming together at pickin’ parties in the dorm rooms. Soon after, Platt, a Brevard, North Carolina, native, called up Guggino, his childhood best friend, to round out the band. Four years later, fiddler Nicky Sanders entered the fold.

Out of the gate, the Rangers were happily absorbed into the bluegrass world, a space where many purists in the scene felt the group could be the torchbearers of the next generation. The Rangers took home New Artist of the Year at the 2006 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards.

But the more the music industry tried to pin down the Rangers, the more the band resisted being pigeonholed. What had started out as a bluegrass act eventually evolved into a bona fide acoustic ensemble that could seemingly play ball on any stage, at any festival, and within a wide gamut of genres.

Around 2009, the Rangers serendipitously crossed paths with Martin, the iconic comedian/actor always within reach of his trusty banjo. Vacationing in Brevard, Martin came into contact with the Rangers during a house party where the band was invited to come and pick a few tunes.

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“I was kind of knocked out [by their] playing,” Martin recalls. “And then I kept thinking I could do a banjo record. I had written these songs and I realized I have enough to record.”

That album became the 2011 release Rare Bird Alert. With the Rangers as the anchor for the project, the record also featured Paul McCartney and the Chicks. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, and Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers were named Entertainer of the Year at the 2011 IBMAs.

With the unexpected success of Rare Bird Alert, Martin’s agent encouraged him to put together a band and hit the road.

“I said, ‘What? I haven’t been on the road since the [1970s].’ He said, ‘You’re going to need a band,’” Martin says. “Well, I only know one band — The Steep Canyon Rangers. So, I asked them if they wanted to do it.”

At that juncture, Martin was simultaneously cooking up something with Martin Short. Following a lauded appearance at the 2011 Just for Laughs festival in Chicago, where the two comedic pillars interviewed each other onstage, Martin was looking to continue the partnership with some kind of touring act — part sketch comedy, part standup, part live music performance.

“[When] I teamed up with Marty, he had this whole show developed and I had remnants of material I did with the Rangers,” Martin says. “I realized I’m not contributing a lot to this show. I need to have the band come. And that’s when our show really changed. It became a much fuller entertainment show.”

“What I love about the show is the variety of it,” Short says. “It has clever jokes, broad jokes, shtick, a nude suit and the Steep Canyon Rangers. That’s what makes it a fascinating show.”

Over the last decade or so, there’s been a handful of changes to the Rangers lineup. Humphrey left and was replaced by another Chapel Hill colleague, Barrett Smith. Percussionist Mike Ashworth was brought onboard to expand the sonic palette. And, in perhaps a shock to even the band itself, Platt bowed out in 2022.

Steve Martin onstage with Steep Canyon Rangers in 2019. Photo: Ryan Miller/WireImage/Getty

With Platt walking away from the spotlight to spend more time with family and pursue other passions, a creative vacuum occurred, one where the Rangers momentarily lost their balance, focus, and resolve to figure out the next move.

“The way it was before, we learned this music together, so it was this thing where we all knew exactly where all the pieces were going to go every time,” Sharp says. “Then take away one piece of that, bring Aaron in, [and] we’re still learning how to accommodate that.”

That’d be Aaron Burdett, a local contractor and longtime singer-songwriter on the Southern Appalachian circuit, who calls Saluda, North Carolina, home. He was suggested toward the end of the Rangers’ audition period to take over Platt’s spot.

By default, Platt was the gravitational core of the Rangers, lyrically and musically. The group revolved around him. But with this current lineup, the Rangers have taken a few pages from the likes of the Band and play in a round-robin setup to equally distribute the weight of the songs and the performances, and give opportunities to members who might not have stood in the spotlight previously.

In a trial by fire move, Burdett was hired and brought into the Rangers. For an aspiring DIY musician playing tiny gigs around the Blue Ridge Mountains, Burdett suddenly found himself hopping on a sleek tour bus to play big stages.

“It all felt very natural, in a way,” Burdett says. “Of course, there are still moments where — as somebody that’s kept a day job, never stopped writing and putting out music — I’ve dreamed of doing this since I was kid, doing it at this level.”

Now a solidified unit, the Rangers rented out a mountain home last year in the backwoods of Bat Cave, North Carolina. Tapping singer-songwriter Darrell Scott as producer, the band holed up for a week in the house to capture what become its latest album, last year’s Morning Shift.

The record is as sonically elusive and varied as the Rangers themselves, the melodies careening across the musical spectrum — raucous Americana numbers, soaring folk ballads, and an intricate bluegrass instrumental for good measure.


Packing up their gear and stage suits, the Steep Canyon Rangers head for the backdoor of the Wynn, en route to the airport for red-eye flights back to their North Carolina homes. Plans are in the works for some more songwriting sessions just to see what they come up with.

“Everybody has that drive to get better and do more,” Guggino says. “It feels more blurred than it’s ever been, and that’s a good thing. We needed some blurring.”