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Breaking down boundaries with The Steep Canyon Rangers
<i>Connect</i> brings rising bluegrass stars to the 2008 SMF
The Steep Canyon Rangers

If one were to make a short list of current, young North American bluegrass bands that seem destined for long, fruitful careers, N.C.’s Steep Canyon Rangers would surely be somewhere near the top.

Their dedication to preserving the format of traditional bluegrass —while aggressively courting new crowds by venturing into markets not commonly associated with the genre— is helping turn scores of new listeners onto this time-honored acoustic derivation of country music.

Unlike many groups on the scene today, the Rangers compose virtually all of their material (rather than relying on outside songwriters or falling back on rehashing old standards), and have earned the respect of their elders. Case in point: they signed with The Stanley Brothers’ prestigious label Rebel Records, and were named Emerging Artists of 2006 by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

In advance of their local debut in Connect’s Americana Series at the Savannah Music Festival, I spoke with guitarist and lead vocalist Woody Platt.

Your band has been credited with putting bluegrass in front of new audiences besides purists. Was that a conscious decision from the start of the band, to try and break into some new types of markets, or does that have more to do with the fact that string-band and Americana music is simply becoming more accepted in rock and country circles these days?

Woody Platt: Well, I think it’s been a pretty conscious decision for us. We really enjoy the traditional bluegrass market and the places that cater to that. Like bluegrass festivals and specialized venues, but we also really and have made a focus of playing other types of festivals that don’t have traditional bluegrass or only feature one type of music. We also play a lot of clubs in college towns across the country, like Chapel Hill and Asheville. We play a lot of rooms that a lot of the traditional bluegrass bands won’t play. I think we’ve been able to do that because of our age and style, and our desire to go in a slightly different direction.

There seems to have been a veritable explosion of impressive bluegrass and bluegrass-based bands that have come out of the Southeast over the past decade. Does it feel to you like we’re still in the middle of a big renaissance in the world of bluegrass music, or have things kind of peaked now?

Woody Platt: That’s a really good question. I feel like for us personally, it’s really just getting going! We’ve laid a lot of the groundwork over the years, but I feel we’re just starting to pick up the momentum and benefit from the interest in bluegrass. We’ve worked really hard for the past seven or eight years just to get our band to the point where we can do what we’re doing now — both musically and professionally as a business.

How much did the vibe and history of North Carolina have to do with the sound of this band? By that, I mean that music of this sort is fairly commonplace in that part of the country. If you’d all met and decided to form a band somewhere else, would have turned out sounding like the Steep Canyon Rangers?

Woody Platt: I think that when we started trying to play bluegrass music, we had a lot of folks that were a resource here in Chapel Hill and western North Carolina. We had real seasoned teachers who’d been playing bluegrass music all their lives to look up to and respect. That helped us get going. I think being based here definitely helped shape our sound. It influenced us a great deal. I also think that all of us growing up here, whether or not we were interested in bluegrass as kids —because none of us were— but it was around. You got to hear it and know what it was. Even if you weren’t trying to play it, we were exposed to it by virtue of where we lived.

In your press bio, it mentions that this is your first band and the first real band of the rest of the members. Is that correct? Tell me a bit about what role that has played in helping you all to develop as musicians on your own terms.

Woody Platt: Yeah, I think so. Mike, our mandolin player had a kind of a rock and roll band in high school and college and did some jazz playing on the guitar. All of us spent some time in school bands. Our fiddle player was a classical guy at Berklee in Boston, but I’m certain that this is everybody’s first bluegrass band and first full-time professional gig. That’s been a cool thing for us. We’ve learned our style of bluegrass together. And we’ve brought in other experiences to that mix. We weren’t hired guns brought in from other bands, which a lot of popular bluegrass groups often are. It’s made it more of a challenge to get recognized, but we have a more unique sound because of it. We’re truly a band, you know? We’re not a collection of well-known players. Listeners don’t know us by our own names. They know us by our band name. I appreciate that. Another big point to make is that we’re really good friends. I think that’s why we’re still together.

Did you ever imagine that playing acoustic music would become your full-time job, or was this always meant to be little more than a fun hobby, or a way to make some extra money?

Woody Platt: You know, it wasn’t in the cards for me personally. I was really good friends with Graham Sharp and Charles Humphrey at college in Chapel Hill. We spent a lot of time outside of class just hanging out. The music evolved out of that. It was great fun, a new experience for me. It just so happened that when we finished school we had the opportunity to play a lot of shows, and it was still fun and rewarding. After that, it just kind of snowballed.

You’ve recorded for the Rebel label (which has put out an awful lot of Stanley Brothers material over the years). How did that come about? Did they seek you guys out, or were you actively trying to get signed by them?

Woody Platt: There was a woman that worked for County Sales, and that’s a distribution company that Rebel had. She lived in Durham, but Dave Freeman, the owner of Rebel Records had a daughter at school in Chapel Hill. She brought him to our show and he was just incredibly into our group and what we were doing. We were familiar with Rebel, and he made it very clear that day that he’d been happy to do a record with us. It was a great feeling. They’ve been a very supportive label and not only do they have such a history with doing all the early Stanley Brothers stuff, but they’re the biggest in the field — not financially, though. They don’t try to create our music for us. They give us that freedom, and it’s been great. We have three albums out now with them.

In 2006, you guys were named Emerging Artist of The Year by the IBMA. I know that some artists hate to receive awards of that nature, because they can either place an undue burden on them to live up to some rather nebulous expectations, or because often, the track record for groups that win such awards doesn’t look that great in hindsight. Did receiving that honor help the band in a noticeable way?

Woody Platt: It’s been beneficial for us. It led to a lot of opportunities in that next year. Basically, just a lot more chances for cool gigs. It got us booked in Europe, and people who don’t really follow the bluegrass scene closely heard our name and checked us out. If we hadn’t won, it wouldn’t have been a disaster for our career, but it sure was nice to be on the ballot and make it all the way and then actually win! I don’t think it necessarily helps with our club dates, but it did help with the people who book bluegrass festivals and things of that nature.

What is it about the current bluegrass music scene that you find most exciting?

Woody Platt: Well, for me personally, I think the thing that’s most exciting is that we’re right in the thick of it. We’re getting booked on these festivals that I didn’t think we’d ever be on. Some of the biggest ones in Telluride and stuff. That’s exciting to me to be in the upper part of the pack.

Do you ever feel things are moving too fast for the band?

Woody Platt: No. We’ve been going for eight years, but another thing that’s always exciting about bluegrass —and it’s why a lot of bluegrass bands can survive— there’s a lot of festivals and shows and venues that have bluegrass series. When you’re in that market, your path gets made for you in a way. It’s easy to get gigs in the Winter when the outdoor festivals shut down. There’s others that take place indoors. We shoot for those and there’s always some odd gig to get on. I think it helps bluegrass fans to know where they’re heading far into the future. We’re heading that way, but we’re also going in our own direction as well, so that’s how we end up with about 120 shows a year.

How traditional are your shows? In other words, would you say in concert your group leans more toward a jam-oriented, progressive form of bluegrass, or do you stick more to the tried and true style of arrangements?

Woody Platt: For the most part, I think we’re a fairly traditional act. We generally wear the suits and almost always sing the gospel quartet type songs. The big difference is that sometimes the shows start at 6 pm, and sometimes they start at midnight. But we take pride in playing the same type of show everywhere. Occasionally at a club we might try to keep the pace up or play a longer version of something. In a theater, we might play a waltz. The crowds change, but the show doesn’t.

Is the notion of helping to preserve a form of American roots music a great concern to the members of the band, or would that be over analyzing what you all do?

Woody Platt: I mean, it’s definitely a truly American music, and we’re just another band doing it. But, I don’t necessarily think that we worry about it in that way.

I know you guys have worked with members of the Del McCoury Band in the past, and they turned in an a amazing, sold out show at the Savannah Music Fest a few years back. For people who may be familiar with Del’s band, but unfamiliar with The Steep Canyon Rangers, what would you say are the main similarities between the two groups, and the main differences in terms of presentation and material?

Woody Platt: We’re kinda similar to Del McCoury’s band in a way. We really like and respect them and we’ve played New Year’s Eve shows with them the past two years in a row. This year, it was at the Ryman, and that was pretty unbelievable. The other show was in Del’s hometown in York, Pa.. They’re one of our favorite bands. They have that high lonesome range in their vocals, which is a bit different from the way we sound.

Do the Rangers use only one microphone on stage as the Del McCoury Band does?

Woody Platt: We use separate instrument mics that we move around, but we all sing around one microphone like they do. We’re a good bit younger than the folks in that group and we might have even more running around on stage. There’s a lot of ducking and dodging and people moving from the left and right. One thing about bluegrass is it’s not only fun to listen to, but it’s also really fun to watch. You can focus on who’s doing what and tell just who’s playing a solo at a given time. For audiences, it’s very engaging.

Have you ever played Savannah before?

Woody Platt: No, and we’re looking forward to it. We’ve heard a lot of great things about this festival. It’s a really impressive lineup. I have a lot of respect for bringing that type of musical diversity to the town. It’s kind of amazing.

Are you hip to the fact that famous bluegrass luthier and concert promoter Randy Wood lives and maintains a shop here?

Woody Platt: Yeah, we are. We actually almost played a show down there, but at the last minute it fell through.

Describe what folks who come to this show can expect. Will you be concentrating mostly on recent material, or does your live set draw on your back catalog as well?

Woody Platt: We’re mostly gonna feature the stuff that’s on the new record which came out in late August. We haven’t carried the record for a full festival season, so we’ll plays some stuff off the One Dime at a Time record as well. Lots of times, we’ll do a show and only plays stuff we have written ourselves as a band. Maybe we’ll throw in an old Lester Flatt tune, but for the most part we feature our original songs.

Who: The Steep Canyon Rangers

Where: The Charles H. Morris Center (opening night) When: 8 pm & 10 pm, Thurs., March 20 Cost: $20 at Listen & Learn: