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Steep Canyon Rangers stay busy

By John Lupton, July 2012

In the midst of what is almost certainly the busiest and most exciting of their dozen or so years as a professional bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers were en route to a late April festival gig in Texas, touring in support of “Nobody Knows You," their first “solo” release in three years (and first on Rounder following four earlier on Rebel).

February brought them into the Grammy whirlwind with “Rare Bird Alert” (also on Rounder), their collaboration with Steve Martin, which had already yielded Entertainers of the Year recognition from the IBMA last fall.

The band’s genesis goes back to the late 1990s when guitarist Woody Platt, bassist Charles Humphrey III and banjo player Graham Sharp were students at the University of North Carolina exploring their newfound love of bluegrass. Mandolinist Mike Guggino had grown up with Platt in Brevard, N.C. and was asked to join the new band, named for Steep Canyon Stout, a California brew they had encountered along the way. Fiddler Nicky Charles was added in 2005, and the lineup remains unchanged since.

“I’ve been really surprised at our ability to grow as a band,” Platt says, “and our ability to keep the band together because there are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made, with the amount of traveling that we do, and you miss out on a lot of other things to tour and be in a successful band. (We've) been able to stay on the same path with similar goals and keep a very high level of friendship, and then start to accomplish goals, and even reach goals that were higher than we had set. It always amazes me to look back and see where we came from.”

“We literally learned the chords for Foggy Mountain Breakdown together, then this past July we played on the Capitol lawn in front of half a million people.” He pauses a moment. “That’s a pretty far way to travel. Everybody says, ‘you need (to get) a break,’ but we got a pretty good break by connecting with Steve. But I think that he’ll tell you, like he tells us, that he respects us a lot too, and he feels like it was a great thing for him as well. It’s not just like we needed him, I think he would say that he needed us, and we’ve been able to help each other get where we want to go.”

Martin came across the Rangers while vacationing in North Carolina, became enamored of their music and found an instant rapport with them - all of whom were in diapers during the years when Martin’s standup comedy and “wild and crazy guy” antics on the earliest "Saturday Night Live" broadcasts made him a major star. Millions watched Martin play banjo on television then, but as Platt notes, most of the audiences they play for now still don’t quite get how devoted he is to the music.

“We’ve done three touring seasons with Steve, and I think it’s starting to catch on that he’s actually doing a bluegrass music show, but originally I think people were just buying tickets because it said ‘Steve Martin’, and they weren’t sure if it was going to be a night of comedy, or a night of him with the banjo, or what.”

“Then they get there and they realize it’s a bluegrass show…a lot of people were hearing it for the first time, and really enjoying it. And there’s also a lot of comedy in the shows, (so) if you came for the comedy, you’d get that as well. But…(Steve’s) been on enough TV shows, and people are starting to know how serious he is about the banjo and this music that we’re doing in the shows that it’s starting to catch on and people are starting to become more aware of (it).”

Laughing over the old joke about one banjo being one too many, Platt says that having two on stage in their shows with Martin has not been all that difficult to work out. Martin often plays the old time “claw hammer” style, for example, while Sharp fills in with the three-finger “Scruggs” style, and Platt points out that the two approaches are “very recognizable and very different.”

“A lot of times, I’ve heard (Graham) explain that he just kind of tries to play when Steve’s not playing. And then, when Steve’s in one position (e.g. fingering up the neck), Graham will be in a different spot on the banjo. It’s a challenge to stay out of each other’s way, but at the same time Steve’s really humble and gives Graham a lot of opportunities to feature (himself) and to have solos on songs, and makes it very clear to the audience that this is going to be Graham’s feature, so (Graham’s) not overshadowed…they play a lot of harmony parts together.”

There is a tendency among people not familiar with bluegrass, Platt acknowledges, to view the Rangers as Martin’s “backup band," not being aware of their swift rise as an independent band over the past decade.

“But you know, we’ve embraced it, both kind of images, and we’ve maintained two tour schedules, so when we’re out with Steve we realize how good that is for us, and how important that is for us now, because we’re benefiting a lot from the experience and the exposure. But…at the same time we realize how important it is for us to tour on our own and to continue to build on what we have been building upon the whole time. It’s made for a busier Steep Canyon Rangers, because we’re basically balancing two schedules. It also been very diverse, it keeps our life fresh.”

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