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Steep Company

The Steep Canyon Rangers
The Steep Canyon Rangers

How can you tell if there’s a banjo player at your door? 

They can’t find the key, the knocking speeds up and they don’t know when to come in (ba-dum ching!).

Kids may not know it these days, with its welcome place at the table of popular alt- and indie-rock outfits like The Avett Brothers, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down and Beck, but the banjo was once the butt of the joke in bluegrass circles. 

Graham Sharpe, banjoist for Grammy-winning bluegrass phenom the Steep Canyon Rangers, says the negative connotations are fading away.

“You hear a banjo, and it’s authentic, no matter what setting you hear it in,” Sharpe tells EW from a tour stop in Spokane. “It’s a very American thing — of course it came from Africa, but not applied in the way it is now.” He tosses up the term gestalt, adding “you can put it behind almost everything.”

Perhaps the most percussive of the string instruments, Sharpe’s banjo had to make room for percussion, i.e. drums, on the Rangers’ latest album, Tell The Ones I Love, a first for the band.

“When playing with the drummer the trick is to find out what to leave in and what to leave out, not to repeat what the drummer is doing, give each instrument its own space,” Sharpe says. He notes that the nature of the songs on the album called for a drummer — Jeff Sipe, who’s played with Leftover Salmon and Susan Tedeschi. 

Sharpe wrote eight of the album’s 12 songs including the title track, a melodic and driving valentine to the friends and family a band must leave when on the road. “As far as the travel and leaving people behind — for me it really resonated,” he says. “I wasn’t even sure what it meant until after we had been doing it for a while. I had a death in the family; that gave a new meaning to the song. I like songs like that, that can gain meaning.”

Once again, the Rangers bring their old music buddy, banjo funnyman Steve Martin, on tour to Eugene, but this time there’s a new face: singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, who first gained fame in the ’80s alt-rock band Edie Brickell & New Bohemians; most recently, she released Love Has Come For You (2013), a collaboration with Martin, and this May she debuted a love duet, “Like to Get to Know You,” with husband Paul Simon.

The Steep Canyon Rangers play with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell 7:30 pm Friday, May 9, at the Hult; $49-$79.