by Jane Roser
Two years ago Steve Martin and Edie Brickell teamed up with North Carolina-based Grammy Award winning bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers for a whirlwind comedy-laden, banjo-pickin’ jamboree of a tour that had audiences all over America enthralled, including me. I caught the tour when it stopped at Wolftrap in Vienna, Virginia and loved the mixture of music, storytelling and comedy.
Martin told the audience how he first met the Rangers while on vacation in North Carolina, but “that story doesn’t go over so well in Hollywood, so I tell everyone there that we met in rehab. And perhaps we will someday.”
Founding Rangers member Woody Platt (vocals, guitar) dabbled in music as a kid, singing in the boys choir and trying his hand at piano and trumpet, but it wasn’t until he got to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill that things fell into place.
“I happened to fall into this bluegrass band with my friends,” recalls Platt. “Graham [Sharp, vocals and banjo] and Charles [Humphrey, bass] and myself were friends for several years before we started the band. We would pick on the quad or the stairwell or the elevator, just anywhere around the music building, then we started playing around campus between classes.” Joining them later were Nicky Sanders (fiddle), Mike Guggino (vocals and mandolin) and most recently, Mike Ashworth (percussion and vocals).
August 28th will see the release of the Rangers ninth studio album Radio, produced by Jerry Douglas (John Oates, Alison Krauss) and released on Rounder Records. The album was recorded at Ashville, NC’s Echo Mountain Recording Studio and consists of twelve original tracks, including the song “Break” which was co-written and performed by Platt and his wife, musician Shannon Whitworth, with Jerry Douglas on dobro.
“Break” is a surprisingly happy, foot-stomping, ballsy break up song which Platt makes clear “is not about us. It’s about somebody close to us. My wife is a great songwriter and has her own career. We haven’t done a lot of collaborating together, but she had this idea and one night we just fleshed it out. We haven’t had a female voice in years; in our early days we had a female fiddle player [but not since then], so it was fun working on it with her.”
This was the band’s first time working with Jerry Douglas and Platt compares Douglas to a ship’s captain, saying he works very steady and methodical, but never rushing them. “We always use a different producer,” explains Platt, “we’re kind of a democracy where we all have a say and we do well with a producer we can trust and rely on to help us make the final decisions on certain things. It’s a real plus for us having someone like Jerry, a real honor. He’s one of our musical heroes and was the perfect choice for us because not only is he completely rooted in early bluegrass, but he has also worked with a lot of other styles of music, so it allowed us to grow and stretch out as a band.”
Introducing a new band member was also new territory for the Rangers. In the past they’ve always added drums and other instruments afterwards, but they became a sextet when drummer and vocalist Mike Ashworth joined, making this the first time the band has entered the studio with percussion as a part of the sound. “It’s a natural evolution for us,” says Platt, “and Mike brings a lot to the table.”
Steep Canyon Rangers were recently nominated for IBMA’s Recorded Event of the Year award for their duet with Edie Brickell on the single “Test of Time”. The song benefits the CAN’d Aid Foundation which is the non-profit arm of Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery.
“They recently built a brewery in Brevard, North Carolina which is where I live and our mandolin player lives and our drummer lives,” says Platt, “all three of us were born and raised in Brevard and we’d gotten to know the owner, so shortly after that we partnered with them [for this charity]. They raise money for environmental causes, trail work and music programs for youths; it’s a multi-faceted charity organization. We also focus on youth charities in general since most of our bandmates have kids.”
In fact, in 2006 Platt founded the Mountain Song Festival as a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Transylvania County. The music festival began as a one day event first headlined by Doc Watson and has since grown into a huge three day event drawing over 2500 attendees.
Currently on tour, the Rangers play between 125 to 150 dates a year, including shows with Steve Martin who, Platt says, is very passionate and serious about the music. “He’s very focused and knows how he wants everything to sound and is really great to work with; he’s very open-minded in rehearsals and has a great work ethic-he’d be happy to play a song twenty times in a row to get it right.”
When asked how they choose a set list with such an extensive catalog, Platt laughs and says, “we’ve probably forgotten more songs than we remember, but we try to focus on the new material. Even if the audience doesn’t know a new song from an older one, the energy that the band has with something that’s new and fresh comes across. Right now we’re playing about 80 percent new material and then we just pick some of our favorites from the back catalog. Also our songwriters Charles and Graham are so motivated and are already writing up new songs. What we don’t do is play the same set every night. We have similar forms to our shows, like there
are certain songs that are good closers, but we’re constantly changing our set; we just enjoy it and it keeps the shows fresh.”
You can catch the Rangers with Steve Martin and the NSO at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC October 23rd and 24th and maybe even hear Martin quip: “I know what you’re all thinking. You’re thinking, here’s another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.”
Well, that’s one lucky choo-choo.