Steep Canyon Rangers
Steep Canyon Rangers (SUBMITTED)

Beverly Hills is known as a swanky Los Angeles enclave.

So, you'd think cell reception would be better, joked Mike Guggino, mandolin player for the bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers. Guggino patiently repeated himself as his service cut in and out during a May 3 phone interview.

The Rangers were in California to rehearse for their theater tour and festival circuit this summer. The group appeared a day earlier on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," along with Steve Martin. The actor and comedian started performing with the group occasionally about three years ago.

While in California, the Rangers were working with the Boston Pops' arranger, who was bringing a synthesizer. The plan was to add big orchestral arrangements to the band's bluegrass tunes.

"We've never done that before," Guggino said. But, he added, the group often works on its tunes to keep things fresh on the road.

Next weekend, the group - sans Martin - will be back at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival.

"It's one of our favorite bluegrass festivals," Guggino said. "It's one of the best traditional festivals. It's a great crowd."

The Rangers have been fans of several groups that have graced the Granite Hill Campground stage, including Gibson Brothers, Sam Bush and The Del McCoury Band.

"It's been really an honor for us to get to know those guys over the years," Guggino said of the McCourys.

Band leader and family patriarch Del grew up in York County. In recent years, his sons started their own

offshoot - The Travelin' McCourys. The Rangers have played with the McCourys in Nashville and at Del's annual Memorial Day weekend event, DelFest. The McCourys have returned the favor by playing the Rangers' annual Mountain Song Festival.

Beverly Hills is far from the North Carolina hills where that festival takes place. It's in the same region where Guggino and Rangers singer Woody Platt grew up.

They were both introduced to bluegrass in college. Guggino, who played guitar, met some guys who played banjo and fiddle.

"I kind of fell in love and started buying records," he said. "I loved the sound of the mandolin and what the mandolin could do."

Platt met Graham Sharp and Charles R. Humphrey III at school. The trio needed a mandolin player and asked Guggino to join. About eight years ago, they met fiddle player Nicky Sanders through a mutual friend.

The quintet was set. It toured, released albums and won International Bluegrass Music Association Awards.

Then, they met another banjo player - Steve Martin - through a mutual friend. Guggino said the group was friends with Martin's wife before the two were married. The Rangers invited her and Martin to a dinner party a few years back, and it didn't take them long to reach for their instruments.

"Steve has been playing the banjo for 40 years," Guggino said. "He used the banjo in his comedy shows. I don't think people realized that he was so good at it. He was being funny and silly. He was technically perfect (on the banjo). He's always taken it very seriously."

Martin's addition to the group in 2009 sent the Rangers' star into another stratosphere. The group booked Bonnarroo, recorded "Rare Bird Alert" with guest artists Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks and won the Entertainers of the Year award at the 2011 IBMA Awards. This year, the band attended the Grammys, since "Rare Bird" was nominated for bluegrass album of the year.

"It was surreal," Guggino said. The bluegrass award is given out in the afternoon along with accolades in genres including opera and jazz. It's when the real musicians show up, Guggino joked, as opposed to the pop circus that happens later in the day.

Alison Krauss and Union Station took home the golden gramophone, but the Rangers didn't mind.

"It was a great honor just to be acknowledged," Guggino said.

The Rangers - and others in the bluegrass community - have been thankful to Martin for using his star power to promote the genre.

"The biggest thing is that he writes all the songs we play with him," Guggino said. "They're just great songs lyrically and instrumentally."

Martin is rare, Guggino added, since he uses two different banjo techniques. He is versed in clawhammer, a strumming style that produces a softer sound, and stroke style, which involves finger rolls and fast picking. And, of course, Martin also adds humor to shows.

"We play the straight guys, and he plays the funny guy," Guggino said.

Martin joins the band on the road, but he also has a solo career. Likewise, the Rangers still produce music and play shows as a quintet. The band released their latest album "Nobody Knows You" last month.

The Rangers, Guggino said, like most bluegrass musicians, try to stay true to the first-generation sounds that Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs perfected while adding their own flair and ingenuity.

Before the phone call broke up once again, Guggino apologized. He had to get back to rehearse tunes that recall a time before cell-

phones and well before nearly everyone in Los Angeles had one pressed to an ear.

- Erin McCracken,
FlipSide staff

If you go

The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival runs

May 17 to 20 at Granite Hill Camping Resort, 3340 Fairfield Road, Gettysburg. The outdoor music festival is rain or shine. Music kicks off

2 p.m. May 17 and runs all night. It starts 11 a.m. and runs all day and night May 18 and 19. Tunes start 10 a.m. May 20, and the festival ends 5:15 that evening.

Band showcases, meet and greets and jam sessions are presented on the Workshop Stage. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the gate May 17; $35 in advance and $45 at the gate May 18 and 19; and $25 in advance and $30 at the gate May 20. Advance ticket sales run through today. Processing fees and taxes are additional. Two-, three- and four-day passes are available. Discounts for seniors and kids are available at the gate.

Parking is free. On-site camping is available for an additional fee.

For details, tickets and camping reservations, call 717-642-8749 or visit www.gettysburgbluegrass.com/festival.

Can't attend? Follow live from home at www.twitter.com/gburgbluegrass.

Meet the Steep Canyon Rangers

Mike Guggino - Mandolin, vocals

Woody Platt - Lead vocals, guitar

Graham Sharp - Banjo, vocals

Nicky Sanders - Fiddle, vocals

Charles R. Humphrey III - Bass, vocals

Steve Martin - Periodically joins the group on banjo

Steep Canyon Rangers:

Steve Martin: www.stevemartin.com

More Steep Canyon Rangers dates

Steep Canyon Rangers will perform with Steve Martin 8 p.m. May 25 at American Music Theatre, 2425 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster. Tickets cost $79. For details and tickets, call 717-397-7700 or visit www.amtshows.com.

Steep Canyon Rangers will perform with Steve Martin 8 p.m. May 27 at DelFest, Del McCoury's bluegrass festival at Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Md. The event runs May 24 to 27. Admission is $25 May 24 and $55 per day May 25 to 27. Teen passes, kid passes and mutli-day passes, which include camping, are also available. For details, visit delfest.com. McCoury hails from York County. Read an interview at www.yorkblog.com/flipside/celebrity-interviews.

Steep Canyon Rangers host the bluegrass event Mountain Song Festival. This year, they'll board a ship with music fans for the Mountain Song at Sea experience Feb. 1 to 4, 2013, traveling from Miami to Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas. The Travelin' McCourys and several other bluegrass bands will perform and interact with fan during the trip. Tickets start at $348. Taxes and fees are additional. For details, visit www.mountainsongatsea.com.

Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival music lineup

Thursday

2 p.m.: Donna Ulisse and The Poor Mountain Boys

3 p.m.: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out

4 p.m.: Audie Blaylock and Redline

5 p.m.: Mountain Heart

6 p.m.: Donna Ulisse and The Poor Mountain Boys

7 p.m.: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out

8 p.m.: Audie Blaylock and Redline

9 p.m.: Mountain Heart

Friday

11 a.m.: Long Road Home

11:45 a.m.: Charlie Sizemore Band

12:40 p.m.: TBA

1:35 p.m.: Steep Canyon Rangers

2:30 p.m.: The Boxcars

3:25 p.m.: Lonesome River Band

4:20 p.m.: Patent Pending

6 p.m.: Long Road Home

6:45 p.m.: Charlie Sizemore Band

7:40 p.m.: TBA

8:35 p.m.: Steep Canyon Rangers

9:30 p.m.: The Boxcars

10:25 p.m.: Lonesome River Band

11:20 p.m.: Patent Pending

Saturday

11 a.m.: TBA

11:45 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad

12:40 p.m.: Blue Highway

1:35 p.m.: Rhonda Vincent and the Rage

2:30 p.m.: The Steeldrivers

3:25 p.m.: The Seldom Scene

4:20 p.m.: The Tuttles with AJ Lee

6 p.m.: TBA

6:45 p.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad

7:40 p.m.: Blue Highway

8:35 p.m.: Rhonda Vincent and the Rage

9:30 p.m.: The Steeldrivers

10:25 p.m.: The Seldom Scene

11:20 p.m.: The Tuttles with AJ Lee

Sunday

10 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad

11:10 a.m.: The Hillbenders

12:20 p.m.: Della Mae

1:30 p.m.: The Seldom Scene

2:55 p.m.: The Roys

4:05 p.m.: TBA