GREENSBORO — Graham Sharp had never made a record outside Steep Canyon Rangers, the Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band with which he has played for more than 20 years.
“That was a question I had: ‘What would that be like?’” Sharp said from his Asheville home. “I was generally pretty pleased with the answer.”
The answer came in Sharp’s debut solo album, “Truer Picture.” Hillsborough-based Yep Roc Records will release it digitally on Friday, with CD and LP to follow on July 9.
Sharp is performing its songs in solo shows this month, including May 27 at The Ramkat in Winston-Salem.
He and Steep Canyon Rangers will perform June 5 with Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.
A Greensboro native, Sharp is banjoist, singer and chief songwriter for the six-member band, formed while its core group were students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
He wrote many of the songs on “Truer Picture” while he and other band members were on lockdown like the rest of the world with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of it is a reaction to all the events of last year — the isolation, the unrest, all the strong feelings that made up everybody’s life last year,” Sharp said. “And also my own personal situation ... For the first time in my adult life, I’ve kind of been home steadily.”
If he waited two or more years to release the songs, he said, “I wasn’t sure if all that stuff would quite make as much sense, both to me and maybe to a listener after that much time.”
“Also,” he added, “I had a handful of tunes that I really loved, that never found a place in any of the records with the band, that I really believed in. I think I understood why they weren’t Steep Canyon Rangers songs and just wanted to give stuff a little different treatment. I was really conscious of giving the record a very different sound than what the Rangers sound like.”
The result is what Sharp calls on his website a mix of “BlueRidgeSoulLateNightCountryTangledRootsGrooveRevival.”
Sharp and Seth Kauffman played all instruments, except Matt Smith on pedal steel. Sharp played guitar, banjo, electric guitar and harmonica.
The War on Drugs’ David Hartley provided harmony vocals on “Deeper Family.”
“This record, to me,” said Woody Platt, lead vocalist of Steep Canyon Rangers, “is Graham channeling the music he loves most: writing it, playing it and singing it all on his own. It’s like a Sunday morning cup of coffee with Don Williams, a late-night tour bus ride with Terry Allen, or an afternoon with John Hartford.”
Among Sharp’s favorite songs on the album: “Love Yourself,” “Come Visit My Island,” which addresses feelings of isolation, and particularly, “North Star.”
“Love Yourself” was influenced by a DJ at his community radio station, who preaches “love yourself” repeatedly during his show.
“’North Star,’” Sharp said, “has the kind of sound and the production that I love ... and it’s kind of really vibey ... It’s like the country music that I put on on a Sunday night and the lights are low.”
The video for the first single off the album, “Generation Blues,” came out March 5. Sharp expressed pride that his 14-year-old son, Wade, directed and edited the video, and that daughter Rosalie, 12, appeared in it.
Wade also edited and directed the video “Truer Picture of Me,” in which Stephanie, Graham’s wife and Wade and Rosalie's mother, appears.
“Just having my kids involved in the work means so much to me,” Sharp said.
During the lockdown, Sharp also wrote songs that he hopes will appear on future Steep Canyon Rangers albums.
Sharp performed a handful of solo shows last summer and fall. The full band did a few socially-distanced drive-in shows in the fall, and one or two recent socially-distanced shows, including one a few weeks ago with an audience of 70 in a hall that seats 2,000.
“It feels really good to be out there,” he said.
“I have focused on trying to improve as a musician and a writer and a singer over the (past) year,” he said. “When I get out there, I hope to be better than we were pre-pandemic, both as a solo act and a group.”
As he tours his solo show, Sharp finds some aspects of it easier than performing with a six-member band.
With Steep Canyon Rangers, “Say you’re playing this one set at a festival and you’ve got this great set and you want it to be perfect and there’s so much pressure,” he said. “I feel like with this solo thing I can be a little more relaxed, maybe significantly more relaxed. And I think that comes across in the album as well.”
“I think it’s really benefited me and hopefully the band in both settings,” he said.
As for Sharp’s hopes for his solo album, “It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea,” he said. “It’s not the Steep Canyon Rangers by any means. I just hope a few people listen to it and fall in love with something on it.”
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.