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Do the Steep Canyon rangers face an uphill climb?

By John Lupton, July 2004

Geography and bluegrass have always been closely related, from the moment that Bill Monroe decided to call his new band the Blue Grass Boys, in honor of his Kentucky homeland and roots.

And the Stanley Brothers, of course, actually were from Clinch Mountain, but even some high-profile band names have been drawn from places that don't actually exist. The Johnson Mountain Boys didn't rely on any maps in choosing their name, and even Jimmy Martin's legendary Sunny Mountain Boys are named more for a state of mind than an actual place.

As they enjoy the buzz generated by the recent release of their self-titled debut on the Rebel label, Woody Platt, guitarist and lead singer of the North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers almost sheepishly admits that the inspiration for the band's name came from a somewhat different angle.

"To be honest with you, it's been a funny topic, but it actually came off a bottle of Deep Canyon Stout (a product of an independent California brewery)."

For a young band that features a decidedly traditionally-oriented style, Platt worries a little bit that the music's purists may misinterpret the name as lacking in respect, but as he carries on a rambling conversation from his Charlotte area home, it's clear that the youthful enthusiasm he and his band mates exude (all are between 25 and 27) is geared toward celebrating the music - not making fun of it.

"It might not fly with a lot of traditional bluegrass fans, we don't talk about it a whole lot, but it was Deep Canyon Stout. Honestly...I only ever had one bottle of was just the time, and we tried other names, and that one just kind of led into it."

That enthusiasm began when they met and began playing music together while students at the University of North Carolina.

"The band was formed in Chapel Hill, N.C., when we were all attending the university there. We met, probably around '96, but we started the band in the fall of 1999. The whole band's from North Carolina. Our banjo player, Graham Sharp, he's from Greensboro, and he grew up playing jazz saxophone. He, like the rest of us, got into bluegrass in college. He's a songwriter, the main songwriter in our group. He was a comparative literature major, and that's contributed itself well to the writing."

Charles Humphrey, a Greenville, N.C. native, plays the bass. He played some bass in the high school orchestra, gave it up for several years and then got back into it in college when he started with it in bluegrass.

"He actually does the second most songwriting in the group, and he just got accepted to do an IBMA songwriting showcase," says Platt of the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Platt grew up in Brevard, N.C. with mandolinist Michael Guggino.

"So when we started the band, we got in touch with Mike and got him to come on in. We had a mandolin player that was playing with us in Chapel Hill, but Mike was the one that was ready to commit and come join the group full-time."

Whatever plans they had for their college degrees, their post-graduation musical success has turned into careers for all four of them.

"It's definitely a full-time occupation right now, for the past two and a half years we've been playing full-time. We do about 140 or 150 shows a year. It keeps us as busy as we want to be and keeps the momentum going...We feel real lucky."

"One of the reasons we felt we were going to be able to make it was that we've been cross-marketing to get this. Not only are we playing your traditional bluegrass market, which we love, and the festivals and the annual concert series that bluegrass bands frequent - the theaters, we do all of those. But we also do a lot of the rock venues, college clubs and eclectic music festivals, world music festivals. I think us being young has helped us, probably, in a bunch of different markets."

When it's suggested that there are striking parallels between them and two other young, traditionally-oriented bands, Open Road and King Wilkie (coincidentally, they share the same manager with Open Road and, like King Wilkie, have also just cut their first Rebel release), Platt acknowledges the basic similarities, but is quick to point out that none of them exactly mirror either of the others.

"You're absolutely right. There are some differences in those three groups...(we're) all close friends, we know each other pretty well. Especially Open Road, we trade out gigs often with them on East Coast-West Coast stuff. I think that both those bands are a little more hard-core traditional, but we're definitely a traditional bluegrass band, but not (quite) like those two bands. We do a lot of original material, most of our material is original. But it's a real similar thing, same age, playing a lot of similar markets."

Platt also says that both individually and as a band, the Steep Canyon Rangers came into bluegrass at the "progressive" end, and have been slowly moving across the spectrum as time and experience have led them along.

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