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Steep Canyon Rangers earn their keep one dime at a time

By David McPherson, October 2005

Taking a breather from the band's seemingly never-ending tour at his North Carolina home, while awaiting guests to arrive, Woody Platt - lead singer and guitarist for the bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers - emits a sense of exuberance and for good reason.

His band hit the festival circuit this past summer and continued turning heads with their fresh and innovative high mountain music.

Platt also is grinning because during the band's first gig north of the border recently in British Columbia, the soulful singer was crowned Corn Shucking Champion at the Chilliwack Bluegrass Festival, holding off serious contenders from both Canada and the United States."They have one of the best areas in the world for a good quality corn," he explains. "One of the things that they do at this festival up there is to have a contest with different age groups and the bands also compete. I got lucky enough to win the band competition."

"It was fun," he adds. "It was a joke really, but I got a few tips before the contest, and it worked out pretty good."Music also is working out well for the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Like contemporary acoustic bands such as Nickel Creek and The Greencards, North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers are part of a new breed of bluegrass band: they borrow elements of the instrumentation and harmonies from trailblazers of the genre such as Bill Monroe and Flatts and Scruggs, but they don't want to pigeonhole themselves as strictly a bluegrass band.

Partly it's a way to market their band more broadly, and partly it's a desire to honor an old time tradition while concurrently trying to make their own unique sound that blends a variety of musical styles.

On the Steep Canyon Rangers' latest - "One Dime at a Time" - released in September on Rebel, listeners will find this mixture of styles: from barnstorming bluegrass stomps ("I'll Be Long Gone") to spiritual songs ("I Can't Sit Down") to compositions that have elements of honky tonk country and even the blues thrown in ("Yesterday's Blues").

The band also tosses in a murder ballad for good measure ("The Ghost of Norma Jean"), along with a high- octane instrumental ("Big Cypoophus") that showcases the picking prowess of these Rangers."One Dime at a Time" is the band's fourth disc and second for Rebel. The disc follows in the same musical vein as their previous records: "Old Dreams and New Dreams," "Mr. Taylor's New Home" and the self-titled Rebel debut.

The Steep Canyon Rangers formed in the fall of 1999 while all were students at the University of North Carolina.

Joining Platt in the Steep Canyon Rangers are: Graham Sharp (banjo, lead and harmony vocals); Charles R. Humphrey III (bass and harmony vocals); Mike Guggino (mandolin and harmony vocals) and fiddler Nicky Sanders.

The band's genesis came about while they were all seeking some higher education; instead, they discovered each other and a love for that high mountain music.

"Three of us met as freshman in the dorm area at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and we developed a really strong friendship," explains Platt. "Then, the music evolved out of that in our junior and senior years when we put the band together."

The band now calls Asheville, N.C. home when they are not driving down a dusty road to another show.

North Carolina is known for its rich heritage of high mountain music, and its penchant for the bluegrass tradition runs deep in the state's rural roots - dating back to the Monroe Brothers in the early '30s. It was only natural then that the band would drift towards these high and lonesome sounds when they were first composing and creating songs.

"The mandolin player and I had been around it (bluegrass) a good bit growing up," Platt says. "The banjo player got interested in it when he bought the banjo...that kind of molded the direction of how we were going to play music together when all of a sudden we have this banjo player, and he is listening to Earl Scruggs and bluegrass music to learn how to play the banjo. The other guy Charles, he bought a bass, and it just seemed with the instrumentation...somehow we got into bluegrass pretty early...we didn't play much else."

"I had listened to a lot of Doc Watson and folk music growing up," Platt adds. "I just got into the singing aspects of it early, and eventually I tried to play more of a bluegrass style of guitar. I loved to sing the early songs that we did. I liked the vocal harmony and getting to sing with different people and constantly working on a strong trio or even a quartet harmony vocal arrangement. I don't know what draws me to it ... it's just something that I really love to hear, and I love to try to reproduce."

Platt and his Steep Canyon Rangers' mates are all about reproducing their live show in the studio and this stripped down, live-off-the-floor, less polished product is what they had in mind when they approached Mike Bub - the long-time bassist for the Del McCoury Band - to help them record "One Dime at a Time."

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