Interview: The Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers celebrate their tenth anniversary this month. We spoke to their guitarist and singer Woody Platt about the band and their collaboration with actor and comedian Steve Martin.

The Steep Canyon Rangers hail from North Carolina and got together at college at the turn of the century. They are Mike Guggino (mandolin), Charles Humphrey III (bass), Woody Platt (guitar), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), and Graham Sharp (banjo).

Despite the non-bluegrass influences that will inevitably affect musicians their age, the Rangers still retain a very traditional sound with a strong emphasis on vocal harmonies. “We are very steeped in the traditional first generation bluegrass having toured with Curly Seckler,” says Woody, “but we then take that original format and write our own songs, which tend to have a more contemporary sound – while still being bluegrass music. We have been influenced by all types of music! I think that’s what adds to our fresh sound and style.”

Their music may give the impression that they have been playing bluegrass all their lives but in fact they’ve only been at it for as long as the band members have been together.

“We were often exposed to bluegrass music when we were young, being from NC, but we did not get into playing it until we were in college,” says Woody.

Other interviews with the band reveal those early picking sessions in college were just for fun and they never dreamt of playing out, let alone going professional. But the band now have several recordings under their belt, were named the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006 and, with over 120 shows a year, they have become one of the hardest working bands on the US circuit.

They’ve already made a name for themselves in bluegrass circles, but it’s the current collaboration with Steve Martin that has really propelled them into the spotlight.

How did this unlikely partnership come about? “My older brother was a good friend of Steve’s wife, so we were introduced to her years ago,” Woody explains. “On a vacation to our home town she brought Steve and we were invited over for a jam…the rest just kind of worked itself out.”

Being Martin’s band means the Rangers are now playing to bigger audiences than ever before.

“I do feel like Steve puts us on stage in front of more folks than any other bluegrass setting could – TV, large concerts halls etc., ” Woody says, “and I think that Steve is, for certain, bringing bluegrass to more and more people – his fans buy tickets to the shows and they leave fans of bluegrass! It is a wonderful thing to see night after night!”

With his background in comedy, it would have been easy for Martin to take the same route with the banjo. Instead, the first CD released by Martin, The Crow, contained many great original songs such as Daddy Played The Banjo and the instrumental title track, that showed bluegrass and old-time could appeal to a mainstream audience without resorting to gimmicks.

And, for perhaps the first time, the music is receiving widespread exposure that doesn’t involve heists and car chases, creepy hillbillies or George Clooney sporting a comedy beard.

“Steve is a great banjo player and the perfect ambassador for the music!!” enthuses Woody.

The Crow was a collection of cameo appearances from various big names in the genre, but the new album, to be released in March, will be a joint effort from Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

“The new record will be called Rare Bird Alert and it features SCR and Steve as the players and we have Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks as guest vocalists,” Woody tells us. “We all worked closely on the arrangements and SCR co-wrote 3 of the tunes. We are very proud of the record. Steve is a joy to work and record with. He is so creative and unique in his playing.”

The year is set to be very busy for the band, who have their own projects on the go as well as the work with Martin. “We will be touring close to 50 shows with Steve in 2011 and over 50 shows as just SCR, so we will have a nice balance of the two,” says Woody. “We plan to record in October of 2011 as just SCR, but for now we are putting our energy into the Rare Bird Alert record.”

And anyone keen to see the Rangers may not have to wait long. Woody tells us the band will be in Europe, possibly including the UK, “early to mid July if all works out as planned.”