There's definitely no shortage of bluegrass bands in North Carolina, which means any new one will need real talent to stand out from the crowd. That didn't happen at first for the Steep Canyon Rangers. The quintet was green, but hungry and willing to listen.
"It's a great state for bluegrass music," says the Rangers' guitarist and lead vocalist Woody Platt. "When we were learning to play we sought out so many players — second-generation bluegrass guys in the surrounding county — taking lessons and playing with them. We looked to them as mentors and several took us under their wing."
Formed while they were attending UNC-Chapel Hill, the Steep Canyon Rangers deepened their craft for six years, which paid off when they were awarded the 2006 International Bluegrass Music Association's Emerging Artist award for their fourth album, One Dime At a Time. Their career has since gone into overdrive. They went on to win IBMA's 2011 Entertainer of the Year award for their work with Steve Martin, as well as the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy last year for 2012's Nobody Knows You.
The Rangers met Steve Martin through musician Edie Brickell, whom they'd known for a few years. They bonded with the comedian, who'd been a bluegrass fan since his teens, when the party turned into an informal jam session. Soon afterward, Martin hired them as his touring band to promote his debut bluegrass album, 2009's The Crow. The timing felt perfect.
"We had always kind of wanted to do a tour with a bigger band," explains Platt, "and this was a unique spin on that."
The band subsequently went into the studio to record an album with Martin, 2011's Grammy-nominated Rare Bird Alert. Any doubts about whether the Rangers could handle the spotlight on their own were subsequently dispelled by the Grammy-winning Nobody Knows You.
Though deeply indebted to more traditional music, the Steep Canyon Rangers are also fans of progressive bluegrass. Like Chapel Hill friends Chatham County Line, they wanted to color more outside the lines.
"We love traditional bluegrass music and everything about that community of people. But at some point we got the confidence to trust our fans to like us for who we are."
That attitude really blooms on last September's Tell the Ones I Love, which brings out Western swing and folk-pop elements while exploring a wider instrumental palette that includes piano, pedal steel and drums. The album was recorded in Levon Helms' Woodstock, N.Y., barn-turned-studio, and produced by Larry Campbell, whose recording credits with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys didn't stand in the way of them achieving a warm, full sound.
"After Nobody Knows You, we decided to make a record with a non-bluegrass producer," explains Platt. "We just wanted to stretch out a little bit. We knew that some of the songs we were writing would lend themselves to having a drum track on there, so we put a drummer on Levon's old kit. It wasn't for any goal or purpose other than that's what we thought the songs needed."
Next month, the Rangers will be releasing a concert album drawn from some of their shows with Martin and Brickell. It's a friendship that keeps on giving.
"It's good because partnering with Steve hasn't changed our identity at all," figures Platt. "It's not like we're Steve Martin's band. We're still the Steep Canyon Rangers. It's a nice way to build on what we already had going on."