The Steep Canyon Rangers have been pickin' and strummin' their own hybrid version of old-time mountain music and bluegrass for nearly a decade. Comprised of singer/guitarist Woody Platt, mandolinist Mike Guggino, banjo player Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, and bassist Charles Humphrey, the Asheville-based string quintet has enjoyed an exiting run over the last two years.
Recently, they've headlined a slew of big shows at music halls and outdoor festivals — including MerleFest, Telluride, Grey Fox, DelFest, and RockyGrass. They've shared stages with master players and popular up-and-comers. They've released a new album titled Deep in the Shade. And they've become tight pals with legendary comedian, actor, and banjo player Steve Martin.
"We're having our 10-year anniversary in January, so we've been running at it for a long time," says Platt. "Right now, the combination of what we're doing on our own and the Steve Martin thing has helped us get a lot of exposure. It's pretty unbelievable right now."
"The Steve Martin thing" is a collaboration that naturally evolved after a random jam session in 2008. Martin was in the middle of recording his first bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, which was released on Rounder in May 2009.
"The first encounter was a set-up dinner," remembers Platt. "We kind of eased in there and had a really informal jam. The cool thing about it was that it was so humble and easy. There wasn't any kind of attitude or ego. It went really well. Steve got comfortable with us as people, and he agreed to be the unannounced guest player with us at the Mountain Song festival."
Martin snuck out on stage for two songs at the event, held in Brevard, N.C., in Sept. 2008. A few months later, the Rangers played a show in a town where Martin was visiting family, so Platt summoned up the courage to make a phone call and invite him to sit in. Martin agreed and met them with banjo in hand.
"That's when it really clicked," says Platt. "We jammed and it was tight. Since then, he's commented about that night to people. We did a few more gigs together, and the next thing you know, we're on tour together."
Martin penned a heartfelt testimonial for the Steep Canyon Rangers for the liner notes of Deep in the Shade. "Very few bluegrass groups write and perform their own music exclusively," he wrote. "The Rangers' original music is firmly rooted in tradition, and it makes you feel that, even though you know you haven't heard this music before, it seems like you have, or at least should have."
Martin and the Rangers toured together quite a bit this year. Their set at Bonnaroo 2010 was a highlight show among many.
"It's his music, and I think we're helping him share that music with the world," says Platt of Martin's set. "We're really all like a band up there. It doesn't feel like we're just the guys in the shadows backing him up.
"Steve has a unique songwriting style," Platt adds. "He has developed his own style of playing, too."
In their 30s, Platt and his bandmates are old enough to remember Martin's zany stand-up comedy work where he'd play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or some other old-time or bluegrass standard with surprising proficiency.
On their end of the spectrum, Platt and the guys are busy headlining a summer tour. They haven't messed around with the instrumentation at all on Deep in the Shade. It's still an all-acoustic, gather-'round-the-mic approach. The lyrical themes dig deeper this time around, though. The fabric of the arrangements feels a bit different, too.
"I think two things have changed: the songwriting and the recording style," says Platt. "The chord structures and ideas behind the songs are different. There's more depth and flexibility."
The album title is derived from the first verse of the third song, "The Mountain's Gonna Sing" — one of several unusually slow-moving ballads on the collection. It contrasts the feel of the friskier "Turn Up the Bottle" and the waltzy "Hollerin' House" — two upbeat standouts that will surely please longtime fans.
"The way we recorded this was new," Platt says. "Our band is mostly about the energy we have on stage. There are bands that are in our genre who are our age, and they're taking things in a new direction. But we're taking things into our own new direction, too. We're staying within a tradition, but we're writing our tunes at the same time."