the modern tales of steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Michael Ashworth, Graham Sharp, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders and Barrett Smith. Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither.

During the recording of their most recent album, “Out in the Open,” the Steep Canyon Rangers played around a single microphone in much the same way a traditional bluegrass band would have 50 or 60 years ago.

That might not seem like earth shattering news save for the fact the Grammy winning North Carolina sextet – lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and percussionist Michael Ashworth – isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. It encompasses an Americana blend that reaches generously but respectfully outside the bluegrass norm. The string band instrumentation is scholarly and confident enough to still be viewed as bluegrass, but the songs – many of which are penned from within the band – possess an almost vintage folk and country inspiration that harkens back to such songwriting stylists as Gene Clark and Vern Gosdin. The Rangers’ appeal, however, has proven inviting enough to forge an unlikely alliance with comedian/actor Steve Martin that has served as a second career of sorts over the past decade.

“We grew up in an area where there was a lot of mountain music and old-time music,” said Platt, who will perform with the Rangers on Saturday at Manchester Music Hall. “I don’t think any of us really absorbed a ton of that or got really focused on it until we were in college, but it was around. There was a square dance every Thursday night right across the street from our house with a bluegrass band, but each member of our band comes from a non-bluegrass background, meaning saxophone players, choir singers and drummers.

“We were sort of a melting pot of influences and I think that comes through in our music. There was a time when we dove into traditional bluegrass head first. Now we’ve been around and have evolved naturally so everybody’s other musical interests and influences are creeping into our version of what I still like to call bluegrass.”

Making the traditional approach to recording the decidedly non-traditional “Out in the Open” all the more curious was the band’s choice of producer – Joe Henry. In addition to his own immensely atmospheric recordings, the veteran song stylist has produced records for such far-ranging artists as Rodney Crowell, Hugh Laurie, Ani DiFranco, Bettye LaVette, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

“We walked into the studio and there’s this guy immaculately dressed with this sharp hat on,” Platt said. “He just immediately set the vibe for a cool, laid back but kind of spiritual approach to making a record. It was never overbearing. He taught us a lot about how he viewed recording. It’s hard to explain until you experience making a record with Joe how impactful he can be without being overly pushy. There was such an easy way about him that really set the mood.”

Cementing the Rangers’ appeal outside of bluegrass circles has been the ongoing partnership with Martin, which has included numerous recordings and performances in front of amphitheater and arena audiences that might have otherwise never heard the band – or, for that matter, bluegrass music.

“I think all bands hope for a break in their careers,” Platt said. “What that may be is a certain song, a certain show or a certain collaboration with a different artist. I never saw one of the biggest breaks we would have coming from a movie star/comedian. It’s kind of bizarre, but it was natural from day one. We played one little jam with Steve and 10 years later we’ve never stopped talking about music.

“People may have gone to see Steve who weren’t bluegrass fans. They were just fans of his career and him. Then all of a sudden, he’s playing bluegrass with the Rangers. We’ve seen that help us when we’ve gone back to those markets. People have come to our shows and said, ‘I saw you with Steve.’ So that’s been a really great thing. Also, just working with Steve and watching him work a crowd and play a big show. That’s given us a ton of great stage experience that we’ve been able to carry into our shows.”

Ahead for the Rangers in 2019 will be a retrospective album of material re-recorded with the Asheville Symphony, continued work on a record of new music and ongoing stage work with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short.

“There is potential when you’re getting close to the end of your second decade as a band to sit back and coast. I feel we’re more focused now than we’ve ever been. It’s an exciting time for the Rangers.”

Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $21-$36. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.



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