North Carolina bluegrass quintet blends the old-fashioned with the contemporary – and relishes playing a supporting role for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Thousands of young musicians all over the South have grabbed the bluegrass torch passed down by their hill-country forebears. What makes the Steep Canyon Rangers, a quintet of four North Carolina natives and one California transplant, stand out is that they didn't embrace the foot-stomping, hell-raising music until college. But rather than fully give themselves over to an overly nostalgic, traditionalist recreation of bluegrass' storied past, Woody Platt, Charles R. Humphrey III, Nicky Sanders, Mike Guggino and Graham Sharp did the most logical thing a regular band (and the most sacrilegious thing a bluegrass band) could do — they started writing originals.
Today, the Rangers are that rare act that can bridge the fierce divide between revivalist and modernist pickers — equal parts rumpled establishment and bearded hipsters. The band appeals to mainstream audiences, too, a fact certainly attributable to its regular role collaborating and touring with comedian, actor and author Steve Martin, who's a damn fine banjo player himself — he won a Grammy in 2010. Though Steep Canyon Rangers' 2011 album with Martin was nominated for a Grammy (the band's solo record, released the following year, won), on May 19, they'll appear at St. Augustine Amphitheatre with Martin and female folk-rock icon Edie Brickell, with the focus on Martin and Brickell's new album, "Love Has Come for You." Folio Weekly chatted with Steep Canyon Ranger Woody Platt about relishing that supporting role.
Folio Weekly: What can we expect from a bill that features Steep Canyon Rangers, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell?
Woody Platt: We were involved in recording two or three of the tracks on Steve and Edie's album, "Love Has Come for You," and the way the show is going to be structured is, it'll be half us and Steve Martin doing our normal set, and the other half will be us doing songs off the record with Edie and Steve. So it'll be a nice mixture of music and comedy. We're excited to work with Edie — she's such a great singer and a wonderful artist.
F.W.: Steve and Edie hit it off musically at a dinner party. Didn't the same thing happen between Steve and the Rangers?
W.P.: Yes, we met Steve informally four or five years ago at a dinner party in North Carolina and had a little informal jam session. We got along really well right off the bat, and the music we played seemed to come real natural, so Steve invited us to do a few shows here and there before eventually deciding he wanted to go on tour — and we got the job [as his backing band]. It's been really great exposure for the Steep Canyon Rangers, both playing in front of larger audiences and learning from an entertainer like Steve. It's a nice mixture of a challenge, an opportunity and a learning experience, and we're just honored to have the gig.
F.W.: Besides being a great dinner-party guest, Steve is a technically adept banjo player too, right?
W.P.: He's a great player, really melodic with a very unique style, which is incredibly important in this genre of music — and incredibly hard. He can play fast and with emotion, and he can play three-finger and clawhammer style. He's a real inspiration.
F.W.: You all discovered bluegrass relatively late in life. Were you avoiding it when you were kids?
W.P.: Sort of. Being from North Carolina, that's the kind of music you're exposed to a lot. In college, something clicked — we didn't really know how to play bluegrass, which gave us a new desire to learn. It felt like we should have been playing it our whole lives, you know? So we learned a lot really quickly to catch up about 10 or 12 years ago and never looked back. And we've totally enjoyed every minute of it.
F.W.: Why didn't you go the traditional, revivalist route?
W.P.: All the traditional bluegrass songs have been done very well, so it was intimidating to try to recreate those. It made sense to start writing our own songs right off the bat. All of our records have contained mainly original compositions written with the band.
F.W.: But you don't seem to take yourselves too seriously, like many avant-garde progressive bluegrass players.
W.P.: This music is supposed to be played as a group for fun, and we just want to keep it that way. There's no doubt that we're a bluegrass band, but also no doubt that we're different from other bluegrass bands. We're fine with progress and growth, as long as the music's roots aren't forgotten. We really like the progressive side, and we love the traditional side, too.
F.W.: The Steep Canyon Rangers have 46 tour dates scheduled between now and July. That's pretty heavy for a band of your stature.
W.P.: It's hard to constantly be on road, but it's so rewarding, too, especially playing these wonderful venues with Steve. And it is a sustainable tour schedule; we can be out on the road a lot and still have a family life. Being home refuels the tank to go back out and do it again. o