The Steep Canyon Rangers: A Bluegrass Tour De Force To Be Reckoned With

(Steep Canyon Rangers with Levon Helm)
(Steep Canyon Rangers with Levon Helm)

In February 2012, the group ventured to Woodstock, NY for a once-in-a-lifetime performance with the Levon Helm Band at Helm’s studios, known as ‘The Barn’, for a Midnight Ramble set.

“We were very fortunate,” Sharp says.

“Especially considering no one knew that was gonna happen,” adds Guggino, referring to the passing of Helm from throat cancer in April.

Platt marvels at the whole scenario. “You know, the whole ‘Ramble’ thing really was a fluke,” Platt admits. “We got so lucky to get booked in there so close to the end of the ‘Ramble’, really. The ‘Ramble’s still going on, but Levon’s participation in the Ramble.”

While at the Barn, the Rangers joined Helm and Larry Campbell (longtime Helm contributor and Grammy Award winning producer) onstage for a rousing performance of The Band’s hit song, “The Weight”, and Helm invited the Rangers back to Woodstock. The group returned a year later, working with Campbell on their new album, slated for a late summer 2013 release.

“It was kind of a really lucky turn of events for us to be there, to experience that, and to meet Larry, and to meet Levon, and to get the invitation to come back. You invite us to a good place, and we’ll show up in force. And we showed up there. Even though Levon wasn’t around to be there with us, he invited us, and we held him to it. Larry and the engineer Justin (Guip) have developed that sound there and it was just a perfect situation for us, especially after we made so many bluegrass records, with bluegrass engineers, and bluegrass producers.”

Sharp and Platt gave high praise of Gary Paczosa, nine-time Grammy Award winning producer and producer of Nobody Knows You. ”We kind of worked our way up to the best of bluegrass engineers, really, in Gary,” Sharp says. “It was nice to try something different.”

“Gary is the best at what he does, and we were really successful with him,” Platt adds. “Going to the Ramble was, I felt like it was the right time to have a little change of pace.”

Humphrey was thrilled at the idea of recording at Helm’s studios as well. “It had a great vibe, with a burning fire, a big barn, and Larry’s like a rock star, can sing everything, and play everything, and that’s on the record, too,” Humphrey explains. “We’ve got a lot of percussion, and Jeff Sipe, who does the drums and percussion, had toured with Phil & Friends, and Larry Campbell, there’s a connection there. Jeff Sipe has a connection with Woody and Mike, and all these things just kind of came together, and not only that, but we had a big collection of songs, and Larry listened to everything. He has a strong opinion, but he’s open to our opinion, too, which a good producer is, so he was able to lead us to the end, and we had a great time doing it.”

Even with the rare downtime from touring, the Rangers keep bluegrass and their North Carolina community close to their hearts. They host the Mountain Song Festival, an annual bluegrass/roots music festival in Brevard.

“I got a call about 9 years ago from a friend who was promoting a festival, a downtown event in Brevard,” Platt recalls, “and there was just some influence from my family wanting to do a festival to raise money for The Boys & Girls Club, and we had a line on a venue.”

Platt asked the friend about starting a bluegrass festival in Brevard, raising money for the Boys & Girls Club, and his friend agreed. “So this is kind of our way, as the Rangers, each year, one time, to pull it together and raise money for the Boys & Girls Club,” Platt continues. “We’re a part of that and we’re proud of it.” The Rangers have hosted the festival for eight years and to date have given $271,000 to the club, helping fund a facility which services hundreds of children, in addition to the club’s music program. The Rangers annual show in Asheville also benefits the local schools their children attend.

The Mountain Song Festival on land has been extended into a seaworthy spinoff, the Mountain Song at Sea, taking the bluegrass festival experience aboard a cruise ship sailing from Miami, Florida to the Bahamas.

“An extension of the fun,” Platt jokes.

Time for another basketball question. A national title this season for their beloved Tar Heels or a second Grammy? This ignites the room once again, morphing these musical virtuosos back into spirited Tar Heel fanboys, each debating the benefits of one victory over the other.

After some animated deliberation, the Rangers decide they’d gladly take both victories. If only navigating the adventurous path to the heights of musical success was that simple.

Starting to wind down for the night, Platt yawns. It’s late and family waits on the other side of the door. Waiting for their fathers and husbands and sons. After that, the never-ending call of the road beckons to them once again.

Where are the Steep Canyon Rangers headed from here? Sharp explains they’re traveling northward, as far as Maine, joining up again with Martin and Brickell promoting their new album Love Has Come For You, as well as continuing to tour behind Nobody Knows You and their own music.

As he rises from his chair, Platt responds to the question by lifting his arm, pointing upwards. As to where the Rangers road leads from this very night, he’s not referring to the geography.

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