ASHEVILLE, NC – Brevard native Mike Guggino ’01 has hit the big time in the music world. Guggino is a history major turned mandolin player, and is one-fifth of the wildly popular bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Guggino started playing music at an early age. “I’ve been playing music my whole life. I started when I was about four or five years old and could sit by myself on a piano stool.”
But the naturally talented musician wasn’t initially drawn to the bluegrass music of Western North Carolina. Instead he gravitated to jazz and classical music. In fact, he studied classical guitar on a scholarship at Brevard College. But after two years, Guggino realized that he had fallen out of love with the genre.
He transferred to UNC Asheville and became a history major. He honed in on Appalachian history classes taught by Dan Pierce. “Dr. Pierce became something of a mentor to me, and I took as many classes with him as I could,” Guggino said.
At about that time, two classmates from Kentucky re-introduced Guggino to bluegrass and he heard the music that had surrounded him his whole life in a whole new way. “I fell in love with it,” Guggino said, simply. “It was the exact opposite of the classical music I had been playing – it was unstructured and unformal. I was drawn to playing the mandolin and began playing just for fun.”
“I definitely feel very blessed to do what I love for a living. And I’m very thankful for my experiences at UNC Asheville. I got a great education and met a lot of wonderful faculty and students.”
As it turns out, Woody Platt, a childhood friend, picked up the bluegrass guitar at about the same time. Guggino and Platt joined up with a few other college buddies and formed the Steep Canyon Rangers. “We were all new to bluegrass but worked hard and developed a style and a sound,” he said.
And that sound was a hit. In 2006, the band received the coveted Emerging Artist of the Year Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and the title track on their album “One Dime at a Time” made it to the top of the bluegrass charts. They haven’t slowed down since.
The band’s fourth album of original songs, “Deep in the Shade,” was released last fall and rose to number three on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart – the band’s highest album ranking so far. Steep Canyon Rangers also was featured on the cover of the November issue of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. At the close of 2009, their songs topped year-in-review rankings from Country Standard Time to National Public Radio.
The acclaim also is due in part to a successful fall tour with nationally known comedian Steve Martin, who also is an ace banjo player. Sold-out audiences across the Southeast were treated to shows by Martin and the Rangers before the tour hit Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and then stops in Canada and London.
In December, the band played 16 shows in Germany and Switzerland. For many in the audience, it was the first time they had heard bluegrass music. “It’s quite an honor to be an ambassador for bluegrass,” Guggino said.
After a rest over the holidays, Guggino and the band are hitting the road once more. Their first show of 2010 is at the Orange Peel in Asheville, followed by stops in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York. In addition, the Steep Canyon Rangers have been tapped to headline the 2010 MerleFest music festival April 29-May 2 at Wilkes Community College. As usual, North Carolina music legend – and UNC Asheville honorary degree recipient – Doc Watson will be at center stage. The longstanding festival honors Doc’s late son and performing partner, Merle Watson.
As Guggino looked ahead to 2010 and reflected over his successful career, he said, “I definitely feel very blessed to do what I love for a living. And I’m very thankful for my experiences at UNC Asheville. I got a great education and met a lot of wonderful faculty and students.”