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Do the Steep Canyon rangers face an uphill climb?

By John Lupton, July 2004

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"Our first album was produced by Curtis Burch, (of) New Grass Revival, and the more progressive stuff like Tony Rice, (and) Old And In The Way, David Grisman - I think that kind of got us into it for sure, but we have definitely regressed, or moved back into Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin (and) Bill Monroe. That's what we like now, the 'Golden Age' bluegrass folks."

Of the 13 tracks on the new Rebel disc, only 1 is not an original, a version of Jimmy Martin's "I'll Drink No More Wine." Platt says that's not just a random or accidental thing.

"Jimmy Martin is one of my favorites, and honestly, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, those obvious people are really what we got into a lot...if we cover tunes, it's gonna be theirs, for sure."

Though he also counts singer and guitarist Larry Sparks among his personal icons, as a guitarist himself Platt has a special regard for Martin's legacy as not only one of the great singers and writers of the music, but also as the person who perhaps more than any other set the standard for bluegrass rhythm guitar and influenced a new generation.

"The Jimmy Martin stuff, his runs, there's just a little bit more to them. When he walks through chords, it's really powerful. He's the king of a lot of runs. You know who else's rhythm guitar playing I really liked was Doyle Lawson's, when he played with J. D. Crowe. You know, people think of him mainly as a mandolin player."

"And I think I've heard Tony Rice give him a lot of credit, to Doyle Lawson as a major rhythm guitar player. And (Tony's) playing, he took a lot of that stuff...from Jimmy Martin, but he refined it a lot and has a lot of chord substitutions that I don't do. But I really love the way he plays rhythm."

After releasing their first two albums on smaller, regional labels, Platt says the step up to Rebel was certainly due mostly to having the talent to impress the Virginia-based outfit, but it helped to be in the right places at the right times.

"A woman by the name of Penny Parsons, who I think has worked with County Sales and Record Depot (both retail outlets associated with Rebel) and Rebel Records for a lot of years...she had seen us at a lot of festivals because she lived in Durham and put us in touch with Rebel, and actually, Dave Freeman (president and founder) from Rebel Records has family in Chapel Hill...and he and (son) Mark traveled down and saw us at a really nice theater that we play a lot. I think they were looking for some young acts, and it's worked out really well."

Of the songs on the new album, "Feelin' Just A Little Like Dale" has been a favorite at live shows.

Written by Sharp, it's something of an off-center tribute to the late North Carolina NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. With Sharp also doing the lead vocal, the song carries echoes of "Hot Rod Lincoln", and Platt laughs as he admits that there's a certain irony in the way the song came to life.

"You know, I'm not sure who (Graham) was listening to. He likes Norman Blake's stuff, and he likes Terry Allen's stuff, and he likes Bill Monroe's stuff, but that whole thing came out of a joke we have while we're on the road, and someone's driving too fast, and someone says, 'Get 'em, Dale,' to the driver. Being from North Carolina, we're actually not, like you'd expect because we have a song (about) Dale Earnhardt on our record, we're not big race fans, but it's been really well-received, and people sure think we're race fans."

Another standout tune - also written by Sharp - is "Kicked Out Of Town", a tale of a woman's honor defended that spirals out of control. It's not quite as bleak as, say, "Long Black Veil", but it tells a good story, and Platt says that it's just another facet of Sharp's talent.

"On our last album, (Graham) had a story song about a guy who owned a cotton mill in a Southern town and had bought up the town and impressed a lot of people, and it was a story song called 'Mr. Taylor's New Home', which was the title of our last album. And so, 'Kicked Out Of Town' was kind of in that same vein, just a good story song, and he's great at writing them. They go over great at our live shows. That's not a true story, but it's a good story."

As the band's fortunes progress, Platt understands that for the Steep Canyon Rangers, it's indeed a steep climb just to stay where they are, but he sees in himself and his colleagues an arc of natural progression and improvement that will keep them at the crest of their collective talents.

"As good as the (studio) records turn out, we want to do a live record, maybe in a real nice theater, so you can really have that live sound. What we've talked about for our next album is re-recording, live, a couple of tracks off our very first disc, because we've gotten so much better and there's a lot of good material there. And we already have three quarters of a new album ready, material-wise. We probably won't use all those songs on the live CD because it's harder to pull that off. I would think that we might do a couple of standards, a couple of originals, a couple of old originals, maybe tape two or three weeks at some really good theaters and compile a good live record."

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