Any native North Carolinian will, at some point, encounter bluegrass. They also will learn that it’s a genre steeped in tradition, as it was passed down through generations in the Appalachian Mountains. It beckons still today newcomers to join its musical conversation. The Brevard-based bluegrass sensations Steep Canyon Rangers (SCR) have contributed their voice to this mountain music, and it has created quite a stir. They will be playing Ziggy’s by the Sea this Friday, January 16.
Consisting of Woody Platt (guitar, lead vocals), Charles Humphrey (upright bass), Graham Sharp (banjo), Mike Ashworth (percussion/Cajun drums), Mike Guggino (Mandolin), and Nicky Sanders (violin), the sextet’s genesis took place 12 years ago at UNC Chapel Hill, where Platt, Humphrey and Sharp began playing music together as college students. Despite what one would think, neither of them grew up playing bluegrass—although they all had musical backgrounds.
The trio began listening to bluegrass together, playing local bars and venues under the name The Rangers. “We learned as a first generation band,” says Platt. “Most of us picked up our instruments in college, and over time we evolved.”
For such a humble beginning, their sound caught ears all across the country, which is how they picked up violinist Sanders all the way from San Francisco. “He finished up school at Berkeley and he was searching for a gig,” Platt says. “He auditioned and is a great fiddle player. We’re lucky to find somebody like him.”
Not only did their talent usher in sought-after musicians, it also gave them the opportunity to share the stage with renowned actor and banjo player Steve Martin, who collaborated with SCR to release, “Rare Bird Alert” (2011). The album contains guest appearances by legend Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks. The extensive touring with Martin opened more doors for SCR, allowing them to appear on David Letterman and “The Today Show.” They also were granted the opportunity to play Austin City Limits, Carnegie Hall, Grand Ole Opry, and even Bonnaroo and Merlefest.
But SCR’s credentials don’t stop there: Their freshman effort, “Nobody Knows You” (2012), unexpectedly won them a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album of the year. Platt sums it up best: “When you start a band, you don’t plan on Grammys. Now, we’ve played some really big shows and the level of professionalism has rubbed off on us.”
The success caught the attention of Grammy-award-winning producer Larry Campbell, who then contacted the band about producing “Tell The Ones I Love” (2013) in the famed recording studio of Levon Helm in New York. Their second effort, though under the perusal of a producer, captured the essence of SCR.
“We had every instrument microphoned, and we all stood in a circle with a fire burning in the background,” Platt says. “There’s an energy that you get playing live as opposed to separated. It’s fun to do it that way.”
Listening to live recordings of SCR corroborates Platt’s statement. The instrumental track “Graveyard Fields,” composed by Guggino, kicks off with a fiery mandolin lead, followed by an equally heated rhythmic section. What’s worth noting here is the communication between the musicians and how they listen to one another when playing together. More importantly, they seem to be having fun doing it.
Playing alongside Martin not only garnered SCR national attention, it also began to redefine their sound. Traditional bluegrass does not feature percussion beyond the stereotypical washboard that comes to mind. Martin’s band, on the other hand, did. The rhythmic addition influenced SCR since they would play sets with Martin’s band, as well as their own.
“We added Mike Ashworth, a friend from Brevard who we grew up with,” Platt mentions. “When we were touring with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the songs needed percussion, so we added Mike. It was so nice playing with him that we invited him to join the band and he has been with us for the past two years.”
Changing the traditional instrumentation of a bluegrass outfit also introduces genre differences. SCR fits more or less into progressive bluegrass, also termed “newgrass,” or as Platt puts it, “We have kind of a Americana sound now.”
As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, and having six very talented members only makes the songwriting process more exciting. As any worthy bluegrass band should, SCR can play the traditional tunes we all know and love, but what makes them a success now is their ability to appease the ear with original material.
“We draw on everyday life experiences; there are all kinds of things that inspire you everyday,” Platt says. “We also jam a lot. When it comes to writing songs now, we don’t really have a pattern. It’s very much a collaborative thing.”
As busy as the band has become, they still manage to maintain a humble perspective, even on a local level. In 2006 Platt founded the Mountain Song Festival as a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Transylvania County (Brevard), which has had considerable results.
“We hold it at Brevard Music Center,” Platt details. “It’s just a great way to get the community together, and we always feature good bluegrass music. It’s really becoming quite popular.”
The festival will be held for the 10th time this September, and they have already raised over $5,000 for the Boys and Girls Club.
SCR has really become an in-demand name in the entertainment industry. Currently on tour, the Ranger crew will be playing shows all the way through April, and they don’t have any plans of slowing down afterward.
“Our new project is with Jerry Douglas,” Platt says. “We’re recording with him; It’ll be out sometime next summer. We want to stay busy, strike while the irons hot.”
Steep Canyon Rangers with openers The Midatlantic
Ziggy’s by the Sea, 208 Market St.
Fri., January 16, 9 p.m.