Steep Canyon Rangers: Five Unexpected Career Twists

The Steep Canyon Rangers have been at this bluegrass band thing long enough (well over a decade) and have gotten far enough with it (to the vanguard of their acoustic genre) that it makes sense to consider the big picture of their career journey and its many unexpected twists.

Here are the five biggest surprises in a musical story whose settings stretch from the halls of the University of North Carolina to Carnegie Hall:

• That The Steep Canyon Rangers became a bluegrass band at all.

In the late ’90s, Charles Humphrey , Graham Sharp and Woody Platt were UNC students who knew next to nothing about bluegrass — certainly not how to play it. But instead of, say, picking up guitars and emulating the alternative jam-rock of the Dave Matthews Band — whose posters and CDs could be found in many a college dorm room at the time — the three young guys wound up finding a roundabout route into the music pioneered by Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s.

“Honestly,” says Platt, “I think Graham was brought into the banjo through Old and in the Way and Jerry Garcia. I think that’s what got him interested. You know, I think when you have a banjo, you’re kinda heading towards bluegrass anyway when you have somebody learning to play Scruggs-style banjo. The closest thing to that I was into was Doc Watson or a couple folk albums that Bob Dylan had done where he just played guitar-like in the ’80s — just played guitar and sang old folk songs and songs that are played in the bluegrass circuit. It really wasn’t ever planned.”

As it happened, Humphrey was renting a standup bass from the school’s music department. And an old friend of Platt’s, Mike Guggino, soon entered the picture, bringing with him a mandolin, a cabin to rehearse in and a serious appetite for leaning bluegrass.

When the Steep Canyon Rangers made their first tentative forays into public picking in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, they immediately stood out.

“There weren’t a lot of students playing,” Platt explains. “There weren’t really any that we knew of that were playing bluegrass, so it was kind of a novelty when we were out playing at the clubs or trying to play.”

• That they stole Nicky Sanders away from a promising classical career.

Sanders is the only Ranger who devoted years of serious, formal study to his instrument — from childhood classical instruction up through the Berklee College of Music in Boston — but he had always approached it as a violinist rather than a fiddler. He might have become one of the next great concerto-performing virtuosos. Who knows? But bluegrass, with its ample room for high-energy soloing, stopped him in his tracks.

Says Platt of Sanders, “He was a classical player, and he just found that he fell in love with bluegrass kinda through this weekly bluegrass jam at the Cantab Lounge in Boston. What I heard him say was he immediately liked the freedom that the music offered. It wasn’t written and it left him so much room for improvisation. He was very skilled with a great ear and classically-trained since he was a young kid, so he just enjoyed something different. And when he joined our band, he was very new to the music, but we were really aware of his skill level and his ability to learn, and he just took to it so fast and has become a great fiddle player and band member.”

• That they elected to wear suits onstage.

“When we started our band,” Platt reveals, “every single person had a ponytail, and we didn’t have nice suits. We wore sandals. Then we switched to matching shirts and blue jeans. We have a hilarious box full of matching shirts.”

Press him for specifics about these coordinated shirts, and he admits, “We had yellow plaid and black roses, and we had solid maroon long sleeves and blue plaid and brown plaid short sleeves. You name it. We would just pull over somewhere and buy everybody the same shirt. I guess we just wanted to have some sort of unity.”

Bluegrass bands of earlier generations almost always performed in suits, and that’s a tradition in which younger pickers are sometimes compelled to participate when they take gigs backing older band leaders.

Despite the fact that the Rangers were a bunch of young upstarts — and of a generation known for asserting its individualism — they eventually decided to upgrade to more traditional attire. By the time they did the photo shoot for their 2005 album, One Dime at a Time, they were sporting suits. And this was well before the natty, suspendered speak-easy style came back into vogue among the youthful crowd.

Platt muses, “That was a good move for us, I think, because it feels good to wear a suit. It feels good to respect the audience and look nice. Sure, it’s a fairly common traditional thing, but it just seems fitting to look different than the people in the audience. A lot of people come up to us and say they appreciate it.”

• That they found themselves accompanying Steve Martin.

Many, many young bluegrass players find their footing in the business by apprenticing in the bands of experienced musicians. The Rangers bypassed all that and went straight to building their own thing from scratch.

“I don’t think any of us could’ve gotten a job with a seasoned band leader,” Platt reflects. “Everybody was at the same starting point. So we learned together.”

And over the course of half-dozen albums, they got quite good together.

He says, “We felt like we had gigs, and we were getting better as musicians and our band was getting better. We had management and everything was kind of in place. Then Steve came along.”

Platt is, of course, referring to Steve Martin.

The Rangers found themselves playing a party in their home state of North Carolina that was also attended by the banjo-playing actor and comedian, who’d recorded a bluegrass album and needed a band to tour it with him. You just can’t make this stuff up.

A feature in the magazine Garden & Gun magazine dubbed Martin “the unlikely ambassador of bluegrass.” But really, it seems just as unlikely that this group of self-taught college buddies would wind up recording a collaborative album with Martin (2011’s Rare Bird Alert) or, together with him, being named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2011 entertainer of the year.

“I guess in all careers, you kind of look for a break, for an opportunity to help grow what you’re doing,” says Platt, who used to supplement his musical income as a fly fishing guide. “We always thought, ‘We need to go on the road and open up for this band.’ Or, ‘It’d be fun to collaborate with this band.’ Those were the kinds of things we were thinking about. But I never thought it would be being in a band with Steve Martin. … But it’s been a great thing. I mean, we have really enjoyed having to learn a whole new catalog of music. It’s challenging for us. We’ve enjoyed having to put on shows in front of really big audiences night after night. And we’ve enjoyed the exposure that we’ve gotten just by having our name associated with his and doing some of the late night television shows.”

• That they make it sound so easy to honor bluegrass tradition and still be themselves.

“I feel like our band really has a unique sound, maybe just because of who we are but maybe because we didn’t grow up with the music,” Platt says. “So when we learned how to play and got into the music, we just kinda did what we could do. We just went without strengths. I became the lead singer because that was what I was good at in the band, and everybody kinda fell into their roles based on what they could do. I think that’s helped define our sound, which is different.”

Eight albums into the Rangers’ career, counting their self-released debut and the one they made with Martin, they’ve arrived at their latest album, Nobody Knows You. Their crisp, hook-laden original songwriting — equally informed by folk-pop and bluegrass idioms — gives their latest set its shape.

“It’s just been fairly natural,” says Platt of the band’s evolution. “I mean, we love to wear suits, and we love the tradition of harmony singing around one microphone, and we love to put the instruments down and sing an a cappella song. All that is very fitting in the bluegrass tradition. At the same time, some of the songs we’ve been writing lately and some of the melodies and arrangements are a little different than the bluegrass formula for making songs.”

He continues, “I think for a long time, we just wanted to try to make ’em where they would sound like a bluegrass song, and now I feel like we’re at a point where we’re just writing songs and however they turn out, if we’re confident in them and proud of them, then we just play them. We might be a little different, but in the end, we’re definitely a bluegrass band and love the music.”