After years of ascending the bluegrass charts with Grammy-winning band Steep Canyon Rangers, ace banjo picker Graham Sharp has found a new passion for climbing crags in the Blue Ridge.
It’s an early fall day, and Graham Sharp—founding member of the Grammy-winning bluegrass outfit Steep Canyon Rangers—is hanging off a cliff, clinging to a granite face on Rumbling Bald Mountain in North Carolina’s Chimney Rock State Park.
At 75 feet, the sport route—colloquially known as Bear Cub—is relatively short. But it’s stout, and just difficult enough that Sharp’s heart pounds a little faster and his vision narrows. The feeling isn’t unlike what washes over him when he steps on stage to perform for a packed concert venue.
“Getting in front of thousands of people is still nerve-wracking,” the musician admits. “But what helps me is to focus on the small things like my breathing or hand positioning instead of all the people out there watching.”
Climbing, Sharp says, isn’t all that different.
“There’s a lot of crossover,” he notes. “You don’t want to focus on what’s below you or even what’s too far above you. You just want to stay right there in the moment, with your big toe crammed into a tiny, tiny piece of rock, hoping that it’ll take you a little bit higher.”
A self-described “climbing novice,” Sharp was introduced to the sport about two years ago when his teenage son Wade joined the rock climbing club at his high school. A pole vaulter, national cyclo-cross and mountain bike racer, and all-around “meticulous, hard-working athlete,” Wade was determined to master his newest interest. He was also determined for his dad to join in on the fun.
“We started taking some of his good friends to Rumbling Bald and spending entire days down there,” says Sharp, who lives in Asheville, about 50 minutes north of the climbing area.
The father-and-son duo have also logged quite a few hours at a cheekily named place called The Dump. Nestled off Highway 221 between Blowing Rock and Linville, the area dishes up a smorgasbord of sandstone cliffs with steep, slabby routes. During their last trip to the area, Wade stepped up as lead climber, which was no easy task.
“I don’t think he bit off more than he could chew,” says Sharp. “But it definitely took all of him to pull it off.”
Undeterred, Wade is setting his sights on even tougher routes that snake up Stone Mountain, a massive granite dome that rises from the North Carolina foothills. He’s also pushing his dad to climb The Nose, an iconic, 500-foot route on Looking Glass Rock in Pisgah National Forest.
As Sharp continues to explore new climbing pursuits, his music career is heading in some new directions.
Earlier this year, Sharp and the rest of the Rangers gathered at the Inn Bat Cave in Bat Cave, N.C., for a week to record the band’s 14th studio album, “Morning Shift.” Officially released on September 8, the record is the first produced in the wake of guitarist and vocalist Woody Platt’s departure.
For those unfamiliar with the band’s backstory, Platt, Sharp, and former bassist Charles Humphrey III met in the late 1990s as students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2000, the trio officially emerged as Steep Canyon Rangers. A year later, they released their debut album, “Old Dreams and New Dreams.”
“We didn’t have a lot of goals for it in the beginning,” says Sharp. “Music was just something we all loved, and things naturally evolved.”
That natural evolution has included three collaborative records with comedian and movie star Steve Martin, a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2013, and a spot in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Through it all, Platt fronted the group on lead vocals. But last April, the Brevard native announced he would be stepping away after nearly two decades with the band. (Humphrey departed five years prior.)
With Platt gone, the five remaining guys worked their network of music contacts and stumbled upon Aaron Burdett, a singer-songwriter and guitarist based in Saluda, N.C. Three weeks later, Burdett found himself at the Hollywood Bowl performing in front of 18,000 fans alongside the other Rangers. The transition was seamless, says Sharp.
“Aaron is a really strong musical personality who has been writing songs for a long time,” he notes. “He brings a deep well of music to us, and it blends perfectly with our style.”
“Morning Shift” is a testament to that. According to Sharp, the record delivers the signature Steep Canyon Rangers sound but is more “dynamic.”
“As we recorded the album, our producer, Darrell Scott, was intent on making sure that Aaron would sing a song, Barrett [Smith] would sing a song, I would sing a song, and then we would repeat,” he explains. “So, it’s different from other records in that we are all telling stories from our viewpoints.”
The songs are also a bit more narrative in nature, says Sharp. “Hominy Valley,” for instance, steps centuries back in time and rehashes General Rutherford’s campaign against the Cherokee during the Revolutionary War.
“I live right near the big bend of Hominy Creek here in West Asheville where the English set up camp,” says Sharp, who co-wrote the song with Burdett and Smith. “There’s an apartment complex being built that has caused a big brouhaha in the neighborhood, so the song combines this history of the Cherokee fighting for their land with these modern confrontations of who gets to choose how the land is used.”
It’s a lot to pack into a four-minute song, hence why it took Sharp several years to fine-tune the lyrics. He finally experienced a revelation one random night after dinner—an example of how songwriting can happen anywhere and anytime.
“I don’t have to be sitting in front of a piece of paper,” he says. “I could be lying in my bed half-asleep. Or I could be walking down the street.”
Though Sharp has yet to write a song while rock climbing, he’s sure that inspiration could strike while he and his son, Wade, are summiting a crag.
“My writing process is sort of ongoing and everywhere,” the musician notes. “It’s just a matter of paying attention in the moment.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers will perform at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, Dec. 9, and the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Va., on January 19. For tickets and a full tour schedule, visit steepcanyon.com.
Cover photo: Graham Sharp and his 17-year-old son Wade. Photo courtesy of Graham Sharp.