A man and his mandolin

When Steep Canyon Ranger band member Mike Guggino visits Interlochen Center for the Arts, it reminds him of being back home in scenic Brevard, North Carolina. That feeling of nostalgia isn’t coincidental. When North Carolina’s acclaimed Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival opened in 1936, it was modeled loosely on our own Interlochen Arts Camp.

Guggino’s journey through the arts parallels the story of many people who have found their way to Interlochen for a summer job, and found their lives enriched—and changed—by their encounter with the arts.

Before their Oct. 25, 2019 concert at Corson Auditorium, get to know Guggino and the story behind the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Tell us a bit about your musical background.
My grandfather played violin, although not professionally. He was in the military, but he was a classically trained violin player. My dad played piano growing up, and when I was growing up, we moved his piano from my grandparent’s house to our house. My dad and I would play together from time to time.

My parents—and the Brevard community in general—support music and the arts so much. We were really lucky. It seemed like every kid I knew was doing it. You know, playing sports, but also doing music, too. I played in band, and learned how to play guitar in high school.

I got a scholarship to attend Brevard College as a classical and jazz guitar major. I studied music for two years, and then I gave it up.

Why did you quit, and how did you end up back in the arts?
Honestly, I got kind of frustrated being a musician. I liked what I was doing and playing, but my heart wasn’t in it. So, I transferred to UNC Asheville to become a history major.

Up until that point, it was all about classical music, jazz, and rock n’ roll for me. Even though I’m from North Carolina, a hotbed of bluegrass, I never paid any attention to bluegrass at all. But I met these guys who played banjo and fiddle, and the stuff they played was so interesting. So, I’d get my guitar out and play with them even though I didn’t know the songs.

They gave me some CDs of their favorite bluegrass bands to listen to, and the more I got into it, I realized that the instrument that I was drawn to in all the recordings was the mandolin.

It wasn’t until I discovered bluegrass and the mandolin that I realized that I was doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t music that I was frustrated with, it was the kind of music and the kind of gigs I was playing that led me to quit music.

I just thought I was picking up the mandolin and bluegrass for fun, and I didn’t think I would be doing it for a living.

What drew you to the mandolin?
I like what the mandolin does, and the role that the mandolin plays in a bluegrass band. It’s big and percussive, but also has a certain solo quality.

It was around this time that Steep Canyon Rangers came together, and we all came to bluegrass and our instruments from a very nontraditional place. It wasn’t like one guy had been playing bluegrass for years and years, and was like, “Ok guys, this is how you do it.” None of us knew what we were doing. We just sort of flew by the seat of our pants, and learned how to do it together.

We were lucky because around Chapel Hill and Asheville people gave us the opportunity to play. They didn’t have any preconceived notions about what we or bluegrass should sound like.

We were just a bunch of guys in college who wanted to have fun and start a band. Around the time everyone started graduating nobody had a career path in mind, and the band thing as going pretty well. We were getting paid playing gigs, and no one was married or had kids at the time. It was like, “Hey, let’s travel around the country, and do this thing.”

It obviously worked out, but you never expect that it’s actually going to happen. But we feel really, really lucky that it did.

Tell us a bit about your hometown of Brevard, North Carolina.
Brevard is a small town, and it’s a beautiful place to live. The county is 70% National Forest land, so being outdoors was a big part of our lives growing up. But with that said, it’s a very culturally active place due in part to the Brevard Music Center, which has this wonderful classical music program that they do every summer.

I actually worked at the Brevard Music Center in high school as my first summer job up in the sound booth. I was recording all the shows for the artists. So, I went to work every single day of the summer and I got to hear operas, symphonies, and small ensemble performances. You know, as a 16 or 17-year-old, it was pretty cool to be exposed to some of the world’s best classical musicians at such an early age.

Were you into classical music as a teenager?
Having grown up playing music and being in high school band, I was sort of used to that environment. But, you know, the one thing that I couldn’t get into was opera. I appreciate it, respect it, and support it. It just wasn’t my thing. But maybe my tastes have changed. Maybe I should give it a chance now, you know? [Laughs]

You grew up with the arts. Why should someone consider taking up arts education?
As a kid you sometimes you’re confused, and you don’t know how to express yourself in a very eloquent or adult way. Music is a way you can express your feelings in a safe and healthy way. You can be happy or sad or angry, and nobody is going to call you out for it. You can be in love, or cry, or get angry—yell. If you play an instrument you can be all of those things, and only you know what you’re feeling, and it’s up to the listener to interpret what that is.

It’s important to have something to focus on, especially as a young person. It’s like learning a foreign language.

Have you had many opportunities to give back to Brevard?
Almost everyone in the band now has kids, and children are very important to us. We were supported as children growing up in Brevard and surrounding communities, and it’s really important for us to give back.

We just played the Mountain Song Festival at the Brevard Music Center, which is a benefit for [The Cindy Platt] Boys and Girls Club of Transylvania County. Every year, Mike and Woody and I, who live in Brevard, do a fundraiser that raises money to give instruments to kids in a program called JAM (Junior Appalacian Musicians). The band has also worked with the The Can'd Aid Foundation which works to give instruments to schools all around the country who can’t afford them.

It’s something that we really take a lot of pride in, and we’ll continue to do it because people did it for us. You never know how you can change the life of a kid just by putting a musical instrument in their hands.

What do you want the audience at Interlochen to know going into the show?
This will be the first time that we’ve played Interlochen solo. We’ve played Interlochen twice with Steve Martin, and the venue definitely reminds me of Brevard Music Center. It’s a beautiful place, and we're real excited to play our own show there.

I hope people come to the show, and have a good time. Whatever their life situation is, whatever they're experiencing out in the world, I hope that they can kind of leave that behind and just get lost in the music. You know, a concert is a place for everybody no matter where you are in life. It's a place for you to have fun and feel emotions and enjoy yourself.

I always hope people can do that at our shows, and at Interlochen, too.

You can see the Steep Canyon Rangers live on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 at Corson Auditorium. Tickets are on sale now.