Steep Canyon Rangers Continue the Expansion of Their Sound on Latest Album, ‘Radio’

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By Brian F. Johnson

Hearing that a bluegrass band’s next album is going to be titled Radio is somewhat shocking. Mainstream radio as an entity has done very little for bluegrass over the past many decades. But North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers have indeed named their new album Radio and there’s a solid reason why the record tips its hat to the format.

The band, which started as a straight ahead bluegrass outfit will always have those roots. But the group, which has solidified their sound and their legacy by winning a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2013, and taken home the International Bluegrass Music Association honor of Entertainers of the Year in 2011, isn’t just a bluegrass band anymore and the new album is more radio-ready than any of Steep Canyon Rangers’ previous work.

“It’s not just a bluegrass album,” said lead singer/guitarist Woody Platt, during a recent interview with The Marquee. “We have kind of naturally over the years, grown our sound. It was never a conscious decision for us to depart from our bluegrass roots, but it’s slowly been happening over the years, and this record brings in a lot of the new elements.”

The album’s title track starts off pretty bluegrass, with some soaring fiddles over percussive banjo and mandolin, but as soon as Platt approaches the mic the song takes a turn that sounds more Nashville than Ashville. As Platt continues, singing about Waterloo sunsets and trips home from Sunday school listening to Casey Kasem, the homage takes shape as the band pays tribute to the radio of their youth. By the time the band hits the chorus, bluegrass is virtually erased, and despite the instrumentation, Steep Canyon Rangers sound like a country band as they harmonize the line “I was born to the rhythm, rocked in the bosom, raised on the sound of the radio, and when I want to get back I turn it up loud and I’m ready to go.”

Platt said that the changes stem from the group’s main songwriters trying new things, but added that it’s their collective approach to those new things that has really shifted the sound. “We’re often following the songwriters,” he said, referring to banjo player Graham Sharp and bassist Charles Humphrey III, the chief songwriters for the Rangers. “They’re not writing as much straight ahead bluegrass stuff and the chord progressions aren’t as predictable as they can often be in a real traditional bluegrass setting, and I think as a band we’re serving the songs the best we can. We’re growing up. We’re changing naturally a little bit and the good part is that we’ve maintained our bluegrass passion, but I somehow feel like this record is going to push us in some other worlds that will be fun to explore.”

While Radio has taken some turns away from bluegrass, the undeniable truth is that the Steep Canyon Rangers as a band grew up in that community and still embrace not only the fan base, but also the mentors that helped to shape them along their path.

When the group first started thinking of producers for Radio, one bluegrass legend was an obvious first thought — 14-time Grammy winner and 18-time IBMA award winner Jerry Douglas. “It seemed so right,” said Platt. “His connection to bluegrass, from The Country Gentlemen and JD Crowe, and everything he’s done with some of the greatest people to ever play the music, and his genre crossing style; all of it was a perfect fit. He knows how it was played straight ahead by the first generation of bluegrass guys and he knows the most progressive sounds and he embraces all of that in his playing and his career. It was just a real natural selection for us.”

The band took a relaxed approach to their recording, opting for a studio close to their Ashville home and a schedule that allowed the songs and the musicians time to breathe throughout the creative process. “Usually we’d block out 12 days or so and go in and make an album start to finish, and when you do that you don’t have as much time to live with it. So for Radio we split it up into four-day sections over three months. We’d go in for four days, cut three or four songs, rough mix them and live with them for three or four weeks before we went back. The whole idea was just not to feel rushed,” Platt said, who added that Douglas helped to keep the mood tranquil. “He’s so laid back. He’s serious about the music, but he’s so laid back manning the ship, and he’s hands on the whole time, but there’s never any urgency or panic.”

While some of the material on the album has been in the Steep Canyon Rangers’ repertoire for a little while, Platt said that there are some songs born in the studio that he and his band mates are still learning the live arrangements of for their shows. And not surprisingly for a group that has offered a release every year since 2011, there are already songs that are newer than Radio. “Our repertoire is going so fast that some songs don’t stay in the show very long,” Platt said. “People request songs from like two records ago and we’re like ‘I don’t even remember recording that.’ But it’s cool because it keeps it fresh and fun.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers know a lot about fun. In 2009 they hooked up with comedic legend and banjo extraordinaire Steve Martin and went on to travel the world with him as his accompanying band, hitting the main stage at top festivals, playing venues like Carnegie Hall in New York, and the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building, among many others. The group’s schedule this year is still intertwined with Martin’s and this summer they will do shows with him and his old friend Martin Short, and later this year they’ll reconvene with him and the National Symphony Orchestra to play the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in D.C.

Platt said that being teamed with Martin has been a huge blessing to the band and gave them exposure and opportunities that they might have otherwise never been awarded, but more importantly he said they were able to learn from one of the greats. “We learned how to put on a show from one of the greatest entertainers in the world, and to play high pressure gigs in front of thousands of people and on late night television and the Capitol lawn. We’re forever grateful to Steve for recognizing our talent and wanting to work with us,” Platt said.

Martin isn’t the only one though that has recognized the group’s talent. Their 2013 capture of a Grammy was the culmination of heaps of recognition across the country and Platt said it’s something that they’ll always hold on to. “When you start a bluegrass band with your buddies in college, you set a lot of goals, but the Grammy probably wouldn’t be one of them. It was just a total surprise to even be in a position to be nominated, and then to win it was an amazing accomplishment that can never be taken away from us. We’ll always be considered Grammy Award winners, but it didn’t put a lot of pressure on us. If anything it’s given us some confidence that what we’re doing is working and being well received.”


Steep Canyon Rangers

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