march 2011

The Steep Canyon Rangers: (from left) Mike Guggino (mandolin), Graham Sharp (banjo), Woody Platt (guitar), Nicky Sanders (fiddle) and Charles Humphrey III (bass). ‘I think all of our band members feel we’re sharper than we’ve ever been, the Steve show is sharper than it’s ever been, just for the sake of doing it more and more and more,’ says Woody Platt. ‘None of us are anywhere near as good as we can be, so there’s only one way to go and that’s to be better.’

Rare Birds Of Bluegrass

Collaborating on Record and On the Road with Steve Martin, The Steep Canyon Rangers Enhance Their Own Identity

By David McGee

Playing straight men to a comedian is the last thing the members of the Steep Canyon Rangers figured to be doing after they formed their most perfect union while studying at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. But here they are at Joe’s Pub in mid-March--as they were almost a year earlier to the day, in fact--as they were at B.B. King’s on 42nd Street this past summer--with a banjo pickin’ Steve Martin  (who this time is billed, as he was not on the latter two dates) using them as his foil in well-honed comedy bits. As in: explaining to the audience how he met the Rangers at a dinner party in NC. Seems Martin’s wife, Anne, and her family would come up from Florida to go on fly fishing trips headed by the Rangers’ guitarist Woody Platt, an avid fly fisherman who actually has a second career as an instructor and guide in that curious art. On one such occasion, Anne showed up with Steve Martin (and his banjos) in tow, the Rangers were all present and accounted for, and music ensued. As Martin wrote in the liner notes of the Rangers’ 2009 Deep In the Shade album, early on in their pickin’ session the Rangers “let me know pretty quickly that I was playing with one of the great new bands in the bluegrass world.”

Martin took pains to point out that Platt had taken all of Anne’s family on these fishing trips, but when he turns to Platt for affirmation of the details, the long, tall guitarist leans into the mic and says gently, “Actually, it was just your wife.” And the packed house erupts in laughter, as it does throughout the hour-plus set.

Typically the humor in a bluegrass show is strictly PG and down home, with maybe a naughty suggestion of infidelity on someone’s part, or a joke about gluttony, or the nature of matrimonial bonds being akin to a ball and chain. Nothing that wouldn’t pass muster on The Andy Griffith Show of yore, pretty much. Martin’s humor is not raunchy by any means and very much in keeping with the bluegrass ethos as filtered through the offbeat prism of, oh, Fernwood Tonight instead of Andy of Mayberry, rooted in the real, only to turn surreal. His humor is honed, sophisticated, often self-deprecating. It’s also freighted with memes that would spur the audience’s collective memory of the character it embraced in the ‘70s as the “wild and crazy guy” with the arrow through his head, who offered rapturous encomiums to “getting small” and had the audacity, at the height of the King Tut craze, to depict the boy king in song as a funky, get-down, party-hearty regent.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, ’Saga of the Old West,’ from the Grammy winning album, The Crow: New Songs For the Five-String Banjo.

In concert, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers present a rare bird of a bluegrass show in which the smart comedy and the inspired music are intertwined in purpose and intent: Purpose: to give the audience a full-on show, not merely a concert; Intent: to bring bluegrass to a wider audience. Martin, experienced on stage and on screen, a screenwriter, an award winning comedy writer and best selling author, knows how to put on a show, and the smooth interaction between he and the Rangers on stage speaks to the thought that has gone into this presentation. The Rangers are indeed as Martin described them in the above-cited liner notes: “one of the great new bands in the bluegrass world” and seasoned performers in their own right. With Martin, the Rangers share a sense of mission about promoting bluegrass to the masses.

“It’s a secret world,” Martin said of bluegrass in a 2009 interview with the Guardian. “It’s a big world but it’s thin.”

Well, it’s not as thin now as it was even two years ago, in part thanks to Steve Martin’s involvement in it, which goes back a ways but became more emphatic with his 2010 Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album for the John McEuen-produced The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. He then hooked up with the Rangers for a smattering of shows: at the Club Nokia in L.A.; at the Rubin Museum in New York in May 2009; on The Prairie Home Companion in June; and in September of that year on tour for two months. When all parties pulled into Joe’s Pub this time, they were celebrating the release of their first joint album project, Rare Bird Alert, billed as being by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Martin takes pains in interviews and on stage to make sure everyone knows the Rangers are not his backing band. To your faithful friend and narrator, for instance, he quipped: “They’re their own band. I’m their celebrity.”

Rare Bird Alert is even better than The Crow, and no small measure for that being so goes to the Rangers’ empathetic rapport with Martin, and a genuine warmth suffusing the music--you don’t need to be a bluegrass aficionado to sense the respect the musicians have for each other, or to feel the good vibes emanating from their musical conversations. This is not to suggest Martin’s supporting cast on The Crow was somehow lacking--it included, after all, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs, and John McEuen, with guest vocals by Dolly Parton, Tim O’Brien, Vince Gill and Mary Black. The Rangers and Martin, though, have bonded like veterans; they seem to be able to anticipate each other’s every move and are, more important, locked into the music’s emotional engine. Yeah, they all play great--Martin too, in case anyone would doubt him--but their feel for the passions of the moment makes Rare Bird Alert something special indeed. It starts with the rippling banjo licks kicking off the title track and doesn’t stop until 12 cuts later, with a rootsy reimagining of “King Tut.” In between: a graceful, bucolic ode to the joys of fishing on “Yellow-Backed Fly,” with Woody laying down a warm vocal exuding the joy of the chase; “love, breakups and reunions,” as Martin writes in his detailed liner notes, is the focus of “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back,” and this easygoing ditty centered on conflicting emotions is an occasion for stellar solos by Martin, fiddler Nicky Sanders and mandolinist Mike Guggino; the good side of breakups fuels the celebration of “Jubilation Day,” another occasion for Sanders to cut loose on fiddle and for a rousing thumping solo by standup bassist Charles Humphrey III, not to mention Martin’s own spoken kissoff at the end; and to begin the process of balancing the musical record for beleaguered atheists (“You know, religious people have such beautiful music and art, and atheists really have nothing,” Martin says by way of introducing “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” “Until now.”), Martin and the Rangers employ the a cappella southern gospel harmony style to make the case for the nonbelievers--and you can bet there really has not been a southern gospel song quite like this one.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, ‘Jubilation Day,’ on The View.

There are also moments of heart tugging beauty. Sir Paul McCartney delivers one of his best vocals in recent memory on “Best Love,” a gently loping love song that becomes something more than the sum of its parts thanks to a Nicky Sanders-written cello part that makes the track sound like a lost Rubber Soul outtake. The Dixie Chicks make a spectacular return to the fold, stealing the show with their immaculate harmonizing at its most emotionally searing on the lush, string-enhanced “You,” a recollection of lost love with the feel of a hymn as it aspires to a certain rustic grandeur when the strings rise--beautiful, simply beautiful, and in its execution a breathtaking balance between melancholy and tear-stained joy. One instrumental in particular stands out, the thoughtful, ruminative discourse between banjo and fiddle on “The Great Remember (For Nancy),” a tune in which the spare, haunting banjo licks seem deeply interior, but to which the fiddle adds a certain zest for the wide open spaces; the song is dedicated to Martin Short’s late wife, who died this past August.

Suffice it to say that Martin’s lyrics are quite unlike most bluegrass lyrics, or any other lyrics, for that matter--a bit more high-minded, less concerned with conventional rhyme schemes than with telling the story conversationally, as if in a short story. “Best Love” is a prime example, and it has the benefit of Paul McCartney telling the tale. Such as: “Things were nice in California/loved our trip out to the coast/did I say your mother phoned us?/you are my best love.” Or: “You look good in fancy dresses/wish we’d bought that one that day/I even like your old ex-boyfriend/you are my best love.” And: “Thanks for solving Friday’s crossword/who knew Ivan was a Czar/and for having patience with me/you are my best love.” These are linked, though, by a most elegant chorus, one reaching for the poetry the verses avoid: “Hardly heard and hardly spoken/hard to talk when things are rough/can’t you hear my heart is saying/you are my best love.” Such examples abound on Rare Bird Alert, an album of treasures revealed incrementally, upon repeat listens.

So where do these Steep Canyon Rangers come from? A Google search reveals essentially no in-depth biographical features on the band. Joe Ross, a staff writer at Bluegrass Now, has done yeoman service in reviewing the band’s albums on and including background material in his appraisals. But in many ways the Rangers seem to have moved up the bluegrass ladder quietly, without the kind of critical cred the mainstream press affords Alison Krauss, Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley, who oftimes seem to be the only bluegrass musicians the mainstream press recognizes. Well, it was Steve Martin who described bluegrass as “a secret world,” so there you go.

Woody Platt: Woody is a fly-fisherman at heart. A while ago he decided to pick up a guitar and start singing those high lonesome melodies to ‘make ends meet.’ Woody obviously has a sense of humor. Thankfully it has worked out well for Woody. When he isn’t working with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Woody guides fishing trips and sells fly-fishing equipment in his booth, ‘The Open Fly,’ located in a mall in Brevard, North Carolina. He is expanding his business to include being a fishing advisor to movie stars, reality contestants, and new-age artisans. Give him a call! Woody’s newlywed (sorry, girls), living the good life on the river--actually between two rivers. Woody co-promotes the Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, North Carolina. (from the Woody Platt playing card included in the deluxe edition of Rare Bird Alert.) Photo by Ted Lehman.

The Steep Canyon Rangers’ story begins in North Carolina, specifically on the campus of the University of North Carolina, where Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, Charles Humphrey III and Mike Guggino met as friends and fellow freshmen and eventually dragged their instruments out and found they had something going when they played together. It was all for fun then, and it was all about friendship at the start. (To clarify, Platt and Guggino grew up together in Brevard, NC, where they still live. “We went to church together,” says guitarist Woody Platt. “We met through our families in church, we played church league basketball together, rode skateboards, literally--Brevard’s a small town--and I consider Mike a friend for almost my entire life.”)

“We spent years developing that relationship, and along with that we developed quite a social circle that really supported us when we became a band,” says Platt, speaking on the phone from his home in his home town, Brevard, NC, prior to rejoining Steve Martin on the road.

A video biography of The Steep Canyon Rangers

As a quartet, the friends started showing up at open mic nights around Chapel Hill. They added Livvie Hamilton on fiddle and Dave Kuo (a friend of Charles Humphrey III) on guitar, and, as seniors, began playing the bars lining Chapel Hill’s main drag. “We had so many years in town and knew so many people that we had a lot of support from the git-go even though we weren’t necessarily very refined as a band,” Platt says. “It was still kind of a novelty; there weren’t any young bluegrass bands in Chapel Hill that we knew of. So we kind of got our ego boosted pretty good pretty early, even though we weren’t very good.”

The “lost” Ranger Dave Kuo turns out to have played an important part in the band’s evolution, according to Platt: “He always said, right from the beginning, ‘If we’re going to have a band, we have to have our own songs.’ He also didn’t want to classify our music as bluegrass. So we got encouraged early, from Dave, and from everybody, really, to write our own songs. And we all tried. Graham and Charles in the end shook out as the guys who would really focus on it and had the skill to pull it off. It was pretty cool to see Dave shredding guitar at our shows, though. Especially when we got more into bluegrass."

They tried out a number of names, Platt recalls (“Freegrass Express and a bunch of other names I don’t really want to tell you about”), then were inspired to dub themselves the Steep Canyon Rangers by a bottle of Steep Canyon Stout--they were, after all, playing lots of bars at this time.

Upon graduation, the Rangers en masse moved into a house in Asheville, NC, and there made a commitment to take the music as far as they could take it and it them. They cut two records with Livvie Hamilton in the lineup, the first, Old Dreams and New Dreams, with producer Curtis Birch from New Grass Revival, fleshing out their lineup with a dobro player and extra mandolin player; the second was for the Bonfire division of Yep Roc. Titled Mr. Taylor’s New Home, it was, says Platt, “actually pretty good. It had a couple of songs that people still occasionally request. The first one, I don’t think you can find it; we don’t sell it.”

Then along came Penny Parsons, who manages Curly Seckler, stumbling upon the band playing in Chapel Hill and recommending them to Rebel Records’ Dave Freeman, who introduced himself to the band after a show and said, “We’d like to make a record with you.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers, ‘Call the Captain,’ a Rangers classic from the band’s Lovin’ Pretty Women album. Lead vocal: Woody Platt.

By this time Livvie Hamilton (who qualifies as the second “lost” Ranger) left the band to “go back to school, get married and do a lot of things at the same time,” so the word went out for a new fiddle player. A series of fiddlers came and went for a year-plus (and the band recorded its first Rebel album as a quartet) until a band friend, Tony Watts, mentioned his friend Nicky Sanders, a classically trained fiddler who was nearing completion of his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Taking the proactive role, Sanders contacted the Rangers and said he would drive from Boston to NC, on his own dime, to audition.

Platt: “Nicky’s an unbelievable fiddle player now, but when he started playing with us he was just starting to play bluegrass. But you could really see the desire and the potential. And Graham and Mike, they sniffed it out right away. I was uncertain, but it was probably the best decision we ever made. He’s such a band member, such a team player, a great showman and a great fiddle player, and he’s got his own style. And he’s really helpful on and off stage, so it’s really been a pretty magical connection.”


The first Rangers’ album on Rebel bore a cover strikingly similar to that of John Fogerty’s Blue Ridge Rangers album of 1973 (at right). A total accident, says Woody Platt: ‘Never even heard that, saw that, knew that. People don’t believe us, but we had no clue.’

In 2004 came the first Steep Canyon Rangers album on Rebel, self-titled, produced by Curtis Birch, with a cover remarkably similar to the 1973 Blue Ridge Rangers album by John Fogerty (a total accident, Platt insists: “Never even heard that, saw that, knew that. My wife and I went up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just above where we live here. And it was shut down. So we walked down through the snow and found this spot where you could get the sun behind your back, and we took a bunch of pictures of the two of us up there. Then we drove the band up there the next day and we took that shot. And it was blue and said Steep Canyon Rangers, and then somebody showed us that Blue Ridge Rangers cover. It’s a wonder we didn’t get sued. People don’t believe us, but we had no clue.”); in 2005 came the Mike Bub-produced One Dime At a Time (Bub’s first producer credit, in fact, and the introduction of Nicky Sanders as a Ranger); in 2007 the first of two consecutive Ronnie Bowman-produced long players emerged, Lovin’ Pretty Women, followed in 2009 by Deep In the Shade. Joe Ross’s review of One Dime At a Time contained this telling observation: “Now playing full-time since 2001, the band has been able to ‘cross-market,’ representing the burgeoning bluegrass genre at venues and events that might not normally include this type of music. So, in a sense, the SCRs are ambassadors of bluegrass who are bringing a younger demographic to the music.”

Going into the studio and making it happen has undone more than one good live musician. The Rangers have been blessed with great drive for excellence on their own part and astute direction in their album projects by savvy producers. Platt is acutely aware of the learning curve and how it’s paid off for the band.

rangers“Being a recording artist and a performing artist is very different. You have a lot of forgiveness on stage and you rely on energy from the audience. In a studio you have to find it within, because there’s more nerves, the mics are on and everything’s being recorded. There’s a self-conscious thing--it’s natural to be self-conscious in the studio. Everybody’s different. With Bub we did more of a live style of recording, kind of captured the energy. I liked it. We did a kind of style I guess he had done with the McCourys in recording, where we basically went for it. We tried to capture the energy, there wasn’t isolation. That was a good way to do it, especially where we were at the time. We were honed as a band but not necessarily as studio musicians. Bub was a really good inspiration for us and that record did well. It was our first record that did anything. We got a number one and it pretty much led us into getting the Emerging Artist of the Year at IBMA. It was just a good thing.

The Steep Canyon Rangers, a cappella southern gospel on ‘I Can’t Sit Down,’ from the One Dime at a Time album. Live from Merlefest 2010.

“And Ronnie was different in that he was more of a perfectionist. There was more isolation and we kind of built tracks; we didn’t necessarily get in a circle and play the songs. I like both of those styles a lot--I like a hybrid version of that. Now my favorite thing to do is to have isolation but everybody be playing at the same time. So kind of ‘live’ isolation, which is a hybrid of what we do with Bub, and what we do with Ronnie. Bub taught us a lot about different things, and Ronnie’s such a good singer, he was really good with vocals, comping vocals. And just giving me confidence.

women“And back to Bub, he really helped out on the arrangements, and getting smooth, kind of cool, unique endings and intros. Then Ronnie had a lot of advice and opinions about lyrical content, melody. But you know, one thing we’ve always been is real confident in our songs. And we showed up with a bunch of original songs. Ronnie didn’t know us when we started making our first record with him, so we had to sell him on some of our tunes, but we’re really adamant about our tunes. We’ve always been that way. Like when we got accepted at bluegrass festivals around North Carolina, we got up there and played our original songs, even though it was a gamble. ‘Who are these young kids and what is this?’ But we just kept doing it and doing it, and it started to catch on.”

Indeed, the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award raised their profile in the bluegrass world considerably, and fueled their commitment to their cause.

shadeThen along came Steve. After the fateful dinner part that introduced everyone, Martin and the band got together again on stage at the Rangers’ annual Mountain Song Festival in Brevard. The Crow was already out at this time, and Martin had been playing quite a bit, was on his game. His appearance on stage with the Rangers went over like gangbusters with the crowd, and it led to Martin making an unannounced appearance when the Rangers pulled into Joe’s Pub in Manhattan in 2009. Next came a call from Martin’s agent inquiring as to whether the Rangers would be interested in touring with Martin to promote The Crow.

Asked if the Rangers had conversations among themselves about whether it was a good move to tour with Martin--whether anyone thought they had worked so hard to establish the Rangers that to subsume their identity to a Steve Martin show might be counterproductive--Platt says it was quite the opposite. And the decision to hook their wagons to Martin’s star has proved fruitful.

“The kind of conversations we had were, ‘Gosh, I wish he would hire us to play with him.”’ We had those kind of conversations. We did a public library benefit at the Club Nokia in L.A. This is before the tour was announced. And there were two thousand people there. But he didn’t introduce us as his band; he introduced us as the Steep Canyon Rangers. So there was no doubt that we should do it and wanted to do it and it would be good for the band. And he was adamant about keeping us equal on the billing--it’s Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers on the shirts, the CDs, the posters. It’s not the Steve Martin Band. That would have been an issue. We have worked a long time. And we have to make a living or we can’t do it. Within the band there’s five kids and four wives; we have a lot of stake. But it’s been great and it’s getting better. We’re playing a show soon as just the Steep Canyon Rangers and it’s sold out. And that’s a direct result of--well, we have good music and we’ve been working really hard, but it’s been fused with this energy we’ve gotten from playing with Steve, the promotion and the exposure.”

The subsequent tour in support of The Crow proved a testing ground for many of the songs comprising Rare Bird Alert--“most of the songs were tried on stage before they were tried in the studio,” Platt says, adding a postscript about the additional benefits of this approach, as the Rangers have experienced them: “That’s smart to do that, because if you play a song on stage and it doesn’t go over well with the crowd, you can look at what you need to change--we call it road testing a song before you commit to it on a record. So a lot of the songs were practiced, written, developed while we were touring; at sound check we would play new material; and some of the songs he wrote while he was in Canada he’d send them to us as mp3s and we’d work them out and refine them. But one thing we do when we’re together with Steve is we constantly pick. He’s so creative and focused and has so much energy to work on the new material, so we tend to have long sound checks because we’re rehearsing songs. Even the few times he rides the bus with us, we pick. And that’s cool. That’s how I remember doing it when we first started, all the time, all day, all night. It has that kind of energy around it and I love it. It’s a challenge, and a good challenge, for us to be learning new songs and especially somebody else’s material.”

(Note: Platt’s reference to Martin composing songs in Canada is about a movie shoot Martin was on, The Big Year, when he used his down time between calls to work on new material. See our interview with Martin in this issue for more on the Canada connection to Rare Bird Alert.)

The Steep Canyon Rangers, ‘Turn Up the Bottle,’ from the Deep In the Shade album. This live performance took place at the Magnolia Avenue Studios of KDHX in St. Louis, MO, April 23, 2010. Video by Andy Coco and Kat Touschner. Sound by Andy Coco.

As for the Tony Trischka-produced Rare Bird Alert sessions, Platt says the Rangers went in with “a lot of confidence” in the principals behind the board (including engineer Gary Paczosa) and “the quality control.” The process, though, was a bit different from the band’s other recordings.

“We sat in a room in a circle, in chairs. We could see each other--I could look straight across at Graham, Steve and Mike. Charles and Nicky were just on the flanks, but they were in a glass room, because the bass needs to be in its own room and the fiddle cuts too loud, cuts over the other mics because of the sound of it. But you could see them. And we had headphones and were all geared up and we did it live. It was not a grueling experience. Some songs we had to hit a few times to get what we needed, and then we would go back and and listen to each track, and if you had some bumps in the red you could focus on those. But I don’t remember it being painful, and that was great. Also, it’s the only record we’ve ever done at home. We were in Asheville for the record, so we could all drive back to our houses at night. We recorded at Echo Mountain. Normally it’s like band camp when we make a record. Everybody stays at the same place, eating the same food, and you can’t get away from it. I really enjoyed that we could have a good long day in the studio and just shake it off a little bit. I thought it was a really healthy way to record. I don’t like recording when it’s just hotel rooms and studios. It never ends.”

As agreeable as the Rangers are on their own on stage, Martin’s comedy bits are phenomena foreign to them as performers. Platt says each show has a “backbone,” but “there’s also a lot of spontaneity and ad-lib.

“It’s his show and it’s been part of the show and it’s become more of the show, and it’s been great,” Platt adds. “It’s made the show longer and it’s been really great for us to be on stage and be part of that, whether we get the jokes and know if he’s cuttin’ on us--but that’s what he is. He’s a comedian. But that has developed into a major part of the show. We don’t rehearse it or work on it.”

Martin jokes from the stage about various bluegrass publications referring to him as “an ambassador of bluegrass,” adding, “That’s because there’s only one.” But Platt buys into the notion of there being a larger purpose to this union with Martin, one that will ultimately serve the music in the best way. “This has been great for us, but it’s really great for bluegrass, it’s a shot in the arm. Steve Martin has such a huge fan base that respects him and just adores him, and no matter what you say, if someone you respect really loves something, you’re gonna give it a chance. And he loves bluegrass and loves the banjo. We’re proud to be part of the mission to help open more people’s eyes to the music.”

An intense backstage rehearsal of ‘Nowhere To Lay Low,’ from the Deep In the Shade album, at the Ryman Auditorium prior to the Rangers’ performing the song at the Mother Church of Country Music.

And do the Rangers feel like working with Steve has elevated their game?

“Absolutely,” Platt answers firmly and immediately. “When the Rangers are touring on their own, we really can’t play on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. We just can’t sell any tickets. But when we’re out with Steve we can play night after night after night. So you get to practice every night. It really helps refine your skill and also there’s no substitute for playing and playing and playing and being on stage and learning how to be on stage. I think all of our band members feel we’re sharper than we’ve ever been, the Steve show is sharper than it’s ever been, just for the sake of doing it more and more and more. None of us are anywhere near as good as we can be, so there’s only one way to go and that’s to be better.”

Click HERE for our exclusive interview with STEVE MARTIN.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024