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Well into a North Carolina night in late April, the Steep Canyon Rangers are gathered around in the back of their tour bus, no more than an hour after their headlining performance at MerleFest, the famed traditional-plus music festival in Wilkesboro. Still in their trademark suits, the Rangers settle as best as they’re able into the confined comforts of their rolling home away from home.
A door divides the bus into two sections, where the band’s family members congregate on the other side, occupying themselves until the group is back to being fathers, husbands and sons. The Rangers are humble, likeable, hard-working and although just into their thirties, are taking bluegrass to unprecedented heights as they progress the genre like no group ever has before them. And they’re crazy about their University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
Knowing the Steep Canyon Rangers are die-hard UNC sports fans, a hypothetical was posed to the band: If Duke University Blue Devils basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski invited the progressive bluegrass quintet to perform at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, would they play?
They laugh from the question, several members exclaiming mock disdain at their bitter rival. For non-sports fans, UNC-Duke is the basketball equivalent of the Hatfields and McCoys. Whether the legendary Coach K would personally – or actually – invite the Rangers is not important. This is just a hypothetical, mind you. The arch enemy. One only needs Google for the full history of the rivalry dating back to 1920.
Most members of the Rangers studied at UNC-Chapel Hill and cut their teeth as a band there, forming in 2001. From Chapel Hill to Asheville, their Carolina roots run deep.
Woody Platt, the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, takes the question with some pause. Ten thousand Duke fans (Known by most as the ‘Cameron Crazies’, they are called ‘Dookies’ by Tar Heel fans) prepped, packed and painted like blue and white screaming banshees – brilliant, screaming banshees – in Cameron Indoor. For a Carolina fan, this is walking into the belly of the beast
Leaning back in his chair, Platt places a finger to his chin, pondering the question.
“I was going to say ‘absolutely not’,” he muses, a smile creasing his lips. “But we’d be wearing Carolina blue seersucker suits.”
It is with this bold confidence that nothing can stop the Steep Canyon Rangers from their rapid ascension in bluegrass music. Fresh off their appearances on the Today Show and Late Show with David Letterman with frequent collaborator and funnyman-turned-banjo savant Steve Martin and singer/songwriter Edie Brickell, the Rangers enjoyed a night of playing their original material. Including the MerleFest stop, the Asheville, NC-based Rangers are in the midst of a spring touring run up and down the East Coast, earning a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album for their latest effort Nobody Knows You, their Rounder Records label debut, along the way.
Joining Platt, the Steep Canyon Rangers are comprised of Graham Sharp (banjo and harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin and harmony vocals), Charles Humphrey III (bass and harmony vocals) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle and harmony vocals). Platt met Sharp and Humphrey at UNC-Chapel Hill and grew up with Guggino, who attended UNC-Asheville. Sanders left California to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and moved to North Carolina in 2004 to join the Rangers. All five been playing progressive bluegrass together ever since. Each member is self-taught, with the exception of Sanders, who is classically trained.
The Rangers are known for their original material as much as their crafty songwriting. However, in those early days at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Rangers got their feet wet on the music of American traditional music icon Doc Watson.
“The first songs that I played with Graham and Charles,” recalls Platt, “when he was renting a bass and we were playing in a rental space in the Carolina music department, the only songs I knew in the songbook were songs that I’d learned off a Doc record or remembering Merle (Watson, Doc’s son), like ‘New River Train’ or ‘Tennessee Stud.’ Our very first jam sessions we were together and trying to play some songs and those songs were songs that I knew the words to. That’s the root. That’s where we started.”
“The first song we did was ‘Tennessee Stud’,” Sharp confirms.
“I can’t even believe you remember that,” Platt wonders.
All were drawn to playing bluegrass in their college days. Platt met Sharp and Humphrey during their freshman year. Both Platt and Guggino were childhood friends in Brevard, a small mountain town on the outskirts of Asheville. Platt built up his smooth baritone in the choir and spent time as a fly fishing guide before catching bluegrass. Guggino began with jazz, classical and rock music, later being drawn to bluegrass and the mandolin by his friends. Humphrey, hailing from Greenville, played upright bass since middle school and surfed the Carolina coastline. Greensboro native Sharp followed Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass work, as well as the Grateful Dead and came to UNC to play soccer. A soccer injury prompted him to take up the banjo.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are,” Sharp says. “If you know the same tunes, you can sit down and play them. That amazed me the first time. I went to a bluegrass festival, Deadhead college kid, twenty miles outside Chapel Hill, playing these songs with these old-timers in the parking lot, and it just opened my eyes.”
Guggino reminisces how the Rangers playing a memorable jam session at Neil Young’s house last year got him thinking about their start in bluegrass.
“We played the Bridge School benefit with Steve Martin, got to go to Neil Young’s house, and kick around this party that he has at house with all the artists, play around the fire, and there was all these pop bands there, famous people, and they’re hearing us play these three-chord bluegrass songs, fast and furious, and they were just blown away. They’d never seen anything like that. That kind of happened to us. We all grew up not playing bluegrass or necessarily listening to it, but once we heard it, we were like, ‘Holy cow, that’s amazing’.”
Platt favors the simplicity of the genre. “It’s pretty easy to play music. You don’t have to plug in, set up, find a rental space, have a drum kit, have amplifiers. So it’s pretty easy for a bunch of people to come together, regardless of where they’re from.”
Originally from California, Sanders picked up music at 5 years old, later traveling east to train at Berklee, before moving south to North Carolina. He offers his unique take.
“For me, coming from a classical tradition, and specifically being a violinist, where you’re always striving to be virtuosic. You’re trying to out-solo everyone, basically. In a way, bluegrass fiddling, is so virtuosic and so challenging, that you listen to it, and it goes frickin’ fast, and so does mandolin playing, so does banjo playing.”
The difficulty in the virtuosic nature of bluegrass was what attracted Sanders. “This might be the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life,” Sanders continues. “Because through three years into bluegrass playing, I was still struggling to keep up with (bluegrass musician) Michael Cleveland, when I could play and sight read all this classical repertoire and do this stuff that I’d been training for 17 years in classical music, and all of a sudden, bluegrass is hard? Yep, it’s hard! Get used to it, it’s going to be hard and continues to be. It still kicks my butt.”