Steep Canyon Rangers ride again
To the Steep Canyon Rangers, it's about the live shows - one
record every two years vs. 100-plus performances annually.
Not that there's anything wrong with a record. Singles from the Asheville-based bluegrass outfit's latest album, Deep in the Shade, have been busting charts on satellite and terrestrial radio alike.
It offers welcome exposure, but none so much as a live performance.
"It's our live show that really sells the band," lead guitarist Woody Platt said. "People's personalities come through. Our stage presence, it seems like that's our strong point."
The Rangers will be present and accounted for at MerleFest in Wilkesboro this weekend, performing two solo shows Friday and then joining comedian, actor and expert banjo player Steve Martin for a concert on Saturday.
It's a collaboration that's put Steep Canyon on the national map, not to mention Garrison Keillor's The Prairie Home Companion, but the Rangers have been hitting the trail for just more than a decade.
Though based in Asheville, the group's roots stretch to Chapel Hill, where they met and began performing while in undergrad at the University of North Carolina.
"We weren't really bluegrass musicians," Platt said. "Nobody really was. Everybody had a history of music, but our friendship developed and, somehow, through the years, we started getting interested in bluegrass."
Graham Sharp picked up the banjo, Mike Guggino a mandolin and Charles R. Humphrey III a stand-up bass, with Nicky Sanders on fiddle and Platt on guitar.
"At our first few shows, we kind of played whatever, but we had bluegrass instruments, so that was the natural direction for us to go in," Platt said. "We played certain bluegrass songs our first show, but eventually we soaked it up and got totally focused on traditional bluegrass music."
Funny enough, none of the Rangers grew up with such music, despite their Western North Carolina backgrounds. But when the Coen Brothers' hit 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, threw bluegrass into the limelight, the Rangers knew the time was right.
Platt grew fond of music from Tony Rice, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and all the classic luminaries - Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe. Also inspired by the progressive sounds of David Grisman and Sam Bush, the Rangers found themselves well-versed in traditional and modern bluegrass.
"It's been a fun journey, and in the process we developed our own style," Platt said. "Our style is completely based around the traditional format of bluegrass, but because our band is real.
There's not a band leader and four hired members - it's truly a band. Everybody has input in every aspect."
Whether deciding what licks to play, a certain chord progression or how harmony should flow, it's an open take on music-making, Platt said, bringing the Rangers a style both old and new, "a young, fresh interpretation of an original bluegrass sound."
Keeping the old new would seem somewhat of a conundrum, but the Rangers have done this handily, mainly through solid writing and scores of original material.
"We record songs that are not only brand new, but that are also written in the band," Platt said. "I think that really makes it fresh right away, just because it's created within the group. We try to ... keep it interesting with the arrangements and format of the music in the show."
Sharp and Humphrey are the Rangers' main songsmiths, bringing ideas to the table, where the band collectively pieces them together. "There's not a lot of ego that comes together with the songs, so everybody's open to adjustment and changes as needed," Platt said.
The Rangers performed in the Chapel Hill and Asheville areas for a year or two, what Platt called their two home bases. They began to set their gaze farther by performing regionally, including regular stops in Boone for some gigs at Murphy's.
"After a few years, that continued to grow," Platt said. "We got aggressive and started going to Colorado. Within two years of the band's development, we were out there for weeks on end. The timing was right."
Timing was right in 2001, when the Rangers released their first album, Old Dreams and New Dreams, on their own label, followed by a 2002 release on Bonfire Records called Mr. Taylor's New Home.
In 2004, they signed with Rebel Records out of Charlottesville, Va., label to such notable musicians as Ralph Stanley, Tony Rice, Del McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, the Country Gentlemen and Alison Krauss. The Rangers released their self-titled album through Rebel that same year.
As a bluegrass musician, Platt felt this was somewhat of a validation point. "We felt like we were accepted by the bluegrass world," he said.
They've since released two more albums through Rebel, 2005's One Dime at a Time, No. 13 on Billboard's bluegrass charts; 2007's Lovin' Pretty Women, No. 5 on the charts; and 2009's Deep in the Shade, which hit No. 3.
"Our records have done well, gotten a lot of radio play, but being a performing artist and recording artist are two different things," Platt said. "I think the worse thing that happens is when you buy a record and it sounds amazing, but you see the band live and they can't reproduce that sound. We surpass the record sound, which is a good way to be."
It's a quality audiences appreciate, as well as their fellow musicians - especially Steve Martin.
The Rangers met Martin through his wife, Anne, while visiting Brevard. When she and Martin returned to the area for a vacation, "We got called to do a little jam," Platt said, "because Steve loves the banjo, and that's how it started - just real informal, no obligations or expectations. The music just clicked."
Martin attended the Rangers' Mountain Song Festival in Brevard and sat in with them for a song or two, unexpected. He did the same when they played in New York.
"He was just willing to show up and play a song or two unannounced," Platt said. "It just got tighter and tighter, and when he decided to go out on the road and support his new record (The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo), we got the call to be the tour band."
It was a good call, Platt said, but more importantly, the band had an excellent time. "(Martin) is a great banjo player, such an amazing entertainer with really good style," Platt said. "We're honored to be jamming up there every night."
When performing with Martin, the Rangers play all of his originals, "and he'll leave the stage and give us an opportunity to play a couple of our songs," Platt said.
Platt admits it was somewhat surreal jamming with Martin the first time.
"You never know where you're going to end up, and we didn't expect to be doing what we're doing," he said. "It's a special experience for us, and we're trying to take full advantage of it. Bluegrass is such a small industry, compared to popular music, and Steve's doing a lot for bluegrass music. If people come to the show, maybe half of them are bluegrass fans and the other half Steve Martin fans."
The way Platt sees it, the latter half is likely to leave as bluegrass fans.
"They'll be more likely to go to another bluegrass concert or festival," he said, "and it has the same effect on us. The crowds are big, a couple thousand people every night on tour in these beautiful theaters, and Steve's been introducing us as the Steep Canyon Rangers from the beginning."
They'll collaborate with Martin on a new album, Jubilation Day, to be recorded in August with a release slated for January. They'll also host the fifth annual Mountain Song Festival in September, a musical fundraiser that's raised $130,000 over the past four years for the Boys and Girls Club.
It's been a busy year for the Rangers and with no immediate signs of slowing down. But in the midst of their nationwide tour, but they're happy to return to MerleFest.
"It's a great festival, especially if you're a band from North Carolina," Platt said. "We're not a hometown band, but we're pretty close."
The Steep Canyon Rangers will perform solo on Friday, April 30, at MerleFest's Creekside stage from 2:30 to 3:15 p.m., on Saturday at the Hillside Stage from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and with Steve Martin on Saturday at the Watson Stage from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. for "An Evening of Bluegrass and Banjo."
For ticket information, visit http://www.merlefest.org. For more information on the Steep Canyon Rangers, visit http://www.steepcanyon.com.