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Pickin’ Straight with the Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers

Tuned strings and tight lines: When not on stage, Woody Platt loves to fly fish in western North Carolina

While most young string bands continue to tweak the boundaries of traditional bluegrass, the Steep Canyon Rangers have no shame in playing it straight. Through 10 years in the pickin’ game, the quintet has consistently pumped out a polished, true-to-form take on the high lonesome sound with plenty of youth-charged energy. The group emerged from Asheville, N.C., back in 2002 and has remained a pivotal force on the current bluegrass landscape ever since, thanks to a dynamic combination of players. The fluid string work of Mike Guggino (mandolin), Graham Sharp (banjo), and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) surrounds the heartily smooth vocals of front man Woody Platt. Driving the engine, both Sharp and bassist Charles Humphrey III are prolific songwriters who keep expanding the band’s arsenal of down-home tunes.

Earlier this year, Steep Canyon released their fifth album, Nobody Knows You, which found the group branching into limited elements of jazz, gospel, and country. They also spent another long summer as Steve Martin’s backing band, as the actor and comedian continues to dedicate time to his banjo skills. Platt shared thoughts on the band’s evolution, curating a bluegrass cruise, and fly-fishing in his free time.

BRO: The new album finds the band blending bluegrass with honky tonk and string jazz. What prompted the additional sounds? 

WP: We didn’t make a conscious decision to broaden our base of music. We tried to treat each song with the different sounds that fit, and how we were feeling about them. This is where we’ve grown organically. We’re still a bluegrass band, but we seem to be naturally incorporating different sounds into our music. It’s gotten us some attention on the Americana charts, and in other areas where we haven’t been noticed in the past.

What’s the collaborative dynamic of the band—since Graham and Charles write a lot of the words but you end up singing them?

It’s an interesting process. Graham and Charles write a lot of songs that we don’t end up cutting, because that’s just what they do. They take a lot of pride in being songwriters. The ones we record have to strike a chord with the whole band. We fall in love with the melody or the meaning, and then everybody gets to offer input. It’s a fun process that can also be daunting at times. Everyone has an opinion, and we like to make sure it gets included.

What has the band learned from performing with Steve Martin?

He’s one of the greatest performers of all time, so we learn a lot from just watching him work a crowd. Our shows with Steve feature music and comedy, and we’re involved in the comedy. He’s taught us a lot about timing and reading a crowd. We’ve slowly gotten more comfortable with the banter, and many times our parts are just one-word rebuttals. With him we also get to play in front of thousands of people a night, so it’s helped us tighten up as a band. In general, it’s made us better at doing what we do.

Now past the decade mark, how would you say the band has evolved over the years—especially since you stay very true to the roots of bluegrass? 

When we started the band, there were no goals. It was just pure fun—a carefree time in our lives when it was just about playing music. We’ve tried to keep that love of the music first, even when you have to factor in responsibilities like families, mortgages, and insurance. In the process of turning it into a full-time job we’ve gone through a lot of changes, but it’s been an amazing process.

The music has evolved. In the beginning, all we wanted to do was be able to play Flatt and Scruggs and be accepted by the IBMA, and now the goal is to leave our original mark on every town that we play. Whether it’s through business evolution or music evolution, I think the most important thing is that we’re still having a great time and we’re still great friends.

What’s the idea behind creating a bluegrass cruise, Mountain Song at Sea, which departs from Miami in February? 

The idea is based off our Mountain Song Festival (September 7-8), which we’ve done in Brevard for the past seven years. We were connected with a company that does a lot of music cruises—mostly with rock bands—and they asked us about helping format a bluegrass line-up, since they didn’t know a lot about the genre. We’re testing it out with a four-day cruise, and we’re surprised at how well the line-up came together. We have some of greatest bands in bluegrass joining us: David Grisman Quintet, Del McCoury, and the Punch Brothers. We’re going to be the host band and do a concert on the beach in the Bahamas. It’s a way for people to get some bluegrass in the wintertime.

I’ve read that if you weren’t in a bluegrass band, you would have been a fly fishing guide. Still get out much? 

I do—all the time when I’m home. My wife, Shannon Whitworth, and I live basically on a trout stream. I get a lot of time to fish around Transylvania County, and I also try to squeeze in trips when I’m on the road. I also still guide occasionally. I have some clients that I’ve been taking out for years, so I still show them some of my favorite spots when I have a chance. Being on the water is a great way to take a break from the road.

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