To the untrained ear, bluegrass tunes tend to run into each other, the patterns and loops of notes both picked and plucked can be a confusing barrage. That's not to say bands like this aren't accessible, you've just gotta be on your toes. The Steep Canyon Rangers are a phenomenal bluegrass sextet from North Carolina and your gateway drug to this distinctly American music. The two-time Grammy Award-winning band offers blinding accuracy with boundless energy. And there are jazz and rock 'n' roll elements that soften the seriousness for those new to the genre who want to take the plunge. The band has been to town twice, both times backing up Steve Martin. This trip is minus the funny man on the banjo, giving the Steep Canyon Rangers the opportunity to really shine.

In March, the band released "Test of Time," a duet with Edie Brickell recorded at Levon Helm's barn with famed producer Larry Campbell at the wheel.

City Newspaper spoke with SCR's mandolin player, Mike Guggino, about bluegrass, purity, Levon Helm, and Steve Martin. Here's what was said.

City: Of all the instruments in your lineup, what's one that's irreplaceable?

Mike Guggino: I would say that now none of our instruments are irreplaceable. Every instrument in our group is an integral part of our sound and style. We recently added a percussionist, Mike Ashworth, and we already feel as though he added a nuance to our band that we would never want to lose.

How do you classify your sound?

It is somewhere between Bill Monroe and The Band. We are a bluegrass band, but we also have a lot of other musical influences that have helped to define our sound over the years. When we started the band, we were coming from very non-traditional backgrounds in terms of bluegrass. We worked hard for years to have a very traditional sound. On more recent albums, we have allowed our songwriting and playing to reflect more of some of the musical influences we all grew up listening to and playing before the band started. Now we kind of mix the traditional with the non-traditional in a way that serves each song the best way possible.

Your influences are apparent for the most part. What are some influences in there that aren't as obvious?

Many of us played classical music and jazz growing up. Some of us were also in rock bands in high school and college. I think Jerry Garcia was one of the first banjo players many of us ever heard. We all listen to a variety of musical genres. All of these styles play a role in how we create music within our group.

To you, what is the greatest period in American music?

It seems like the decades immediately following WWII, American culture was changing so much. Music changed a lot, too, and many new styles of music were created, including bluegrass and rock and roll. That must have been an exciting time to be a musician.

How did you find Steve Martin, or did he find you?

We met at a party in North Carolina while he was vacationing there with his wife's family. It was just after he had recorded "The Crow" and he needed a band to tour with. We were literally in the right place at the right time.

Did you mind playing second fiddle to him?

Not at all. Steve is an amazing performer and we have learned so much from him about being on stage and creating a great show. He is very conscious about showcasing us or giving us a chance to be highlighted on every show. We are very grateful for all the things he has done over the last 5 years to promote the Steep Canyon Rangers.

What were the advantages and disadvantages of this collaboration?

I can't think of any disadvantages from this collaboration. Steve has put us on some of the biggest stages in the world. We have had exposure we would have never achieved at this point in our career.

Talk a little about the making of your latest record with Larry Campbell.

We had the honor of playing one of the last "Midnight Rambles" at Levon Helm's barn in Woodstock, New York. Levon mentioned after the performance that they had never recorded a true bluegrass band at his studio. We thought of no better place to create our next record. Of course one of the main benefits of making the record there was having Larry Campbell as our producer. He was the right producer at the right time, too.

We were wanting to incorporate some non-bluegrass elements, such as drums, on that record. Larry was really great at understanding how a bluegrass band functions on its own and how a drummer can fit into that in a unique way. It certainly changed the way I played rhythm on the mandolin. Many of his ideas about playing bluegrass mandolin rhythm with a drummer I still use today on our new material. He was generally full of great ideas for arrangements to our new songs that didn't necessary fit into one category musically.

How did you manage to maintain your live concert energy?

Adding percussion certainly has added energy and drive to our live show. We always have and always will take the stage with the intention of slaying the crowd.

Anymore collaborations down the pike?

We will continue to play shows with Steve Martin this year. Some of the shows we are doing with Steve this year are comedy shows with him and Martin Short. It's such a treat to watch those two legends go at it on stage.

The Steep Canyon Rangers will play Saturday, June 27, 4 p.m., in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street. Tickets are $30-$45.

In This Guide...

  • Jazz Festival Guide 2015

    City Newspaper's guide to Rochester's biggest music festival. For more reviews, blogs, photos, and the latest news, check our website every day of the festival.

  • Festival Information

    Tickets, Venues, Parking and Additional Information

  • Friday, June 19 - Schedule

    Friday, June 19 3:45 p.m.: Buckman Heights Elementary School Jazz Street Stage (FREE)

  • Friday, June 19 - Musician Bios

    Friday, June 19 - Musician Bios Anthony Strong Fortified with an acclaimed live show, a tailored suit, and a grand piano, the Anthony Strong wears the "English Gentleman" role well.

  • Saturday, June 20 - Schedule

    Saturday, June 20 3:45 p.m.: Gates-Chili High School Jazz Band Jazz Street Stage (FREE)

  • Saturday, June 20 - Musician Bios

    Saturday, June 20 - Musician Bios 78 RPM Big Band A 16-piece band based out of Dansville, 78 RPM brings big band music all through Western New York.

  • Raul Midon

    When I reached Raul Midon by phone he had just returned from a tour of Europe. With a vocalist, lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, bassist, percussionist, and trumpet player in tow, it could have been a complicated tour.

  • Sunday, June 21 - Schedule

    Sunday, June 21 3:45 p.m.: MCC Jazz Band Jazz Street Stage (FREE)

  • Sunday, June 21 - Musician Bios

    Sunday, June 21 - Musician Bios Benny Green Solo See listing for Saturday, June 20.

  • Herb Alpert

    It's 9 a.m., Pacific Time when Herb Alpert gave us a jingle-jangle a few weeks ago. He'd been up for hours recording "Whatever pops into my head," the 80-year-old jazz and pop trumpeter says.

  • Monday, June 22 - Schedule

    Monday, June 22 - Musician Bios 12:00 p.m.: Jazz Starts at the Library with Mike Kaupa Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County (FREE)

  • Monday, June 22 - Musician Bios

    Monday, June 22 - Musician Bios Blue Highway With more than 20 years together and 11 albums to show for it, Blue Highway is at the top of the bluegrass heap.

  • Jane Bunnett

    What is it about Afro-Cuban music that makes it the very embodiment of joy? Is it the dance of the exuberant polyrhythms as they weave in and out of one another?

  • Tuesday, June 23 - Schedule

    Tuesday, June 23 12:00 p.m.: Jazz Starts at the Library with Danny Ziemann Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County (FREE)

  • Tuesday, June 23 - Musician Bios

    Tuesday, June 23 - Musician Bios Aaron Diehl Aaron Diehl turned more than a few heads with his gorgeous keyboard work when he played last year's XRIJF with Cecile Mclorin Salvant.

  • Wednesday, June 24 - Schedule

    Wednesday, June 24 12:00 p.m.: Jazz Starts at the Library with Mel Henderson Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County (FREE)

  • Wednesday, June 24 - Musician Bios

    Wednesday, June 24 - Musician Bios Aaron Diehl Solo See listing for Tuesday, June 23.

  • Fred Hersch

    Growing up in Cincinnati, Fred Hersch noticed that there was a piano in his house, so, at the age of 4, he sat down and started to pick out tunes. That precocious beginning led Hersch to a career as a sideman with greats like Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, and Art Farmer; as a leader on more than 40 albums; and an innovator who has expanded jazz into multimedia and the classical realm.

  • Thursday, June 25 - Schedule

    Thursday, June 25 12:00 p.m.: Jazz Starts at the Library with Doug Stone Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County (FREE)

  • Sharon Jones

    Sharon Jones was scheduled to sing at the 2013 Rochester International Jazz Festival when her career was abruptly put on hold due to a bout with cancer. Consequently, the following feature article was also put on hold.

  • Thursday, June 25 - Musician Bios

    Thursday, June 25 - Musician Bios Ali Jackson Trio The son of bassist Ali Jackson Sr., drummer Ali Jackson had strong encouragement at an early age from stars like Max Roach, Milt Hinton, and Aretha Franklin.

  • Friday, June 26 - Schedule

    Friday, June 26 12:00 p.m.: Jazz Starts at the Library with Mike Melito Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County (FREE)

  • Friday, June 26 - Musician Bios

    Friday, June 26 - Musician Bios Arstidir Iceland's Arstidir has spent the last six years touring in more than 30 countries.

  • Ingrid Jensen

    If instruments have personalities, trumpet has to be the most audacious and in your face. Maybe that's why not many budding female musicians are handed one.

  • Saturday, June 27 - Schedule

    Saturday, June 27 3:00 p.m.: Bill Tiberio Band East Ave. & Chestnut St. Stage (FREE)

  • Saturday, June 27 - Musician Bios

    Saturday, June 27 - Musician Bios Alex Pangman Regarded as Canada's "sweetheart of swing," Alex Pangman has proven herself a talented and learned student of the classic jazz singers.