“My freshman year, I had a dream that I was playing in Carnegie Hall,” Humphrey remembers. “The next day, I went out and signed up for upright bass at the university, and I was learning bluegrass with Graham and Woody at the same time.”
That was the late ’90s, when Humphrey and fellow future Steep Canyon Rangers Woody Platt and Graham Sharp were college buddies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They were all musicians since their high school days, but they were just starting to get into bluegrass. Humphrey’s dream was about as realistic as the one about winning Olympic gold or dating Angelina Jolie.
The moral of the story? Dream big. Today, Humphrey and his pals play in one of the hottest bands in bluegrass, backing banjo player/comedian Steve Martin on sold-out tours of the country’s largest amphitheaters and performing arts centers, playing the Fourth of July Celebration on the National Mall and receiving a 2012 Grammy nomination for their collaboration with Martin, Rare Bird Alert. In February 2013, they launch their first bluegrass cruise in the Caribbean. And Carnegie Hall? Been there, done that.
A lot of bands would just be enjoying the ride, but though their roots were in rowdy college bars and frat parties, the Steeps (aka “The Rangers” or just “SCR”) have always been a disciplined, goal-oriented band with a strong work ethic. They were rising bluegrass stars long before Martin asked them to join him in 2009, winning the IBMA Emerging Artist award way back in 2006.
So even as they plan their 2013 touring schedule with Martin, they’re alternating those mega shows with smaller Steeps dates. They know how easy it would be to lose their identity, sharing a stage with a personality as big as Martin and playing to huge audiences who, for the most part, never heard of them before. That’s one reason they called their 2012 Rounder debut, Nobody Knows You, after a song written by Sharp. “The title’s not directly about us and our situation,” explains Platt, “But, it could be perceived that way.”
Most important, the dozen songs do a fine job of telling you just who the Steep Canyon Rangers are in 2012. Except for Tim Hardin’s “Reputation,” best known by Gram Parsons, all songs are band originals. Sharp wrote seven, Humphrey wrote three, and mandolinist Mike Guggino contributed “Knob Creek,” a staple of their live shows, first recorded for the band’s self-released 2002 CD Mr. Taylor’s New Home.
The Steeps sound is decisively bluegrass, but while they don’t break the rules, they leave them badly bent, avoiding the usual formulas. Co-producer/engineer Gary Paczosa brought a modern sensibility, including tweaks like the distortion-processed vocals on Sharp’s “Between Midnight And Dawn.” Sharp added his own twists to that tune, playing his banjo with a flatpick, popping artificial harmonics from the strings, inspired by a ’70s arena rocker not often cited as a bluegrass influence. “To me, it sounds a little like Peter Frampton’s guitar,” Sharp says of his solo.
Though it’s the overall sound of the Steeps, informed by the past, but not bound by it, that really sets the band apart. The feel is a bit like a tightly disciplined, song-oriented jam band. “That’s what we’re all about, short solos,” says Platt. “We might even skip solos. The song is about the song. That’s getting lost in bluegrass, I think. It’s getting to be about how fast somebody can shred their solo. We’re like anti-that, although our guys can shred. The option is there.”
The group is steeped in tradition by choice, not birthright, even though four of the five hail from North Carolina, birthplace of Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson—hallowed ground for bluegrass fans.
“That’s what’s weird about our band,” says mandolinist Guggino. “We are from the South, and none of us played bluegrass growing up. We all played music, just not bluegrass. Our whole band got into it from the non-traditional channels, the jam bands, the newgrass and the Grateful Dead kind of angle, and we then all found our way back to Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers. And that’s ultimately what we hung on to. And that does seem what the kids are doing now. They’re getting into the old stuff, too.”
The Steeps represent the new North Carolina, which often seems like Colorado’s Appalachian outpost. The community of Brevard (where most of the band lives) and the nearby city of Asheville are home to a young, hip, and fast-growing community of mountain bikers, trail hikers, and rock climbers, a place where today’s brew of choice is “micro” not “home,” and where Jerry Garcia is as much a bluegrass icon as Doc or Earl.
Another reason the Steeps sound different is that they are different. Today’s typical bluegrass band is born as a business proposition, a group of hot pickers and singers who’ve worked with bigger names, but form a partnership to be their own bosses. The Steeps started as buddies discovering bluegrass together. That sense of shared excitement continues to drive the band.
“That was so fun back then,” Platt recalls of their earliest days. “It was just such a new thing to me. And Graham and Charles and I had been friends our entire college career. Charles and I had been roommates. We were all in the same social circle. So the band was born after the friendship, and I think that’s a really big part of who we are.”
With Platt on guitar, Sharp on banjo, and Humphrey on bass, they enlisted one of Platt’s oldest friends, who, by coincidence, had just switched from guitar and sax to mandolin. Guggino and Platt had been kids together in Brevard. Guggino became such an accomplished classical guitarist that he earned a full scholarship to Brevard Community College. There, a couple of friends who played bluegrass got him hooked. “We’d go to parties and camp-outs and these guys would be pickin’ and I would get my guitar out and try to keep up with them. And they gave me some Tony Rice CDs and Seldom Scene and Hot Rize and John Hartford, and I started listening to that music and I just fell in love in with it.”
When he heard the David Grisman Quintet, the classical touch of Grisman’s compositions inspired a switch to mandolin and a big decision. “I quit being a guitar major and started playing bluegrass.” But, there was a hole in his learning curve. “I was playing a lot of those Grisman tunes and things like that, and I realized I wasn’t getting it and I couldn’t figure out why, and someone said to me, ‘Grisman really has a lot of Bill Monroe in his playing, and I think that’s what you’re missing.’ I started listening to Bill Monroe and the traditional bluegrass and just really fell in love with it and really started liking it more than the jazzy, modern newgrass stuff. And that’s kind of the direction I’ve gone to in my own playing, the traditional style.”
He credits Mike Compton, master of the Monrovian downstroke, for inspiring that sound in his playing. You can hear those influences on his instrumental “Knob Creek,” named not for the bourbon, but for the stream running behind his boyhood home in Brevard. Nonetheless, Guggino jokes that he wouldn’t turn down a case should the distillers want to show a little love for the free plug.
By the time the Steep Canyon Rangers were getting serious, Guggino had transferred to UNC in Asheville, and another Chapel Hill student, Lizzie Hamilton, was on fiddle. Hamilton stayed for two albums, but left in 2003 to attend grad school and start a family. “She was a trooper, traveling around with the guys as many years as she did,” says Sharp. “We were traveling rough in those days. It was camping, sleeping on floors. She was definitely a trooper.”
When the Steeps made their self-titled 2004 debut for Rebel Records, they had no permanent fiddler. Live shows featured a rotating cast of fill-ins, and that’s when Nicky Sanders heard about the gig.
Sanders had been raised a classical violinist in San Francisco, but at 16 was exposed to bluegrass and other styles at a Mark O’Connor fiddle camp. Along with O’Connor, he got to play with swing legend Claude Williams and the great Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. He went on to Berklee College in Boston, augmenting formal studies with private fiddle lessons from Matt Glaser, who would later helm the Berklee Roots Music program that Sierra Hull attended.
Boston has had a long and vital bluegrass scene since the days of the Lilly Brothers, Joe Val, and a kid named Peter Rowan, and Sanders was soon focusing on bluegrass fiddle. “For me, it was a genre switch, but a serious one. I had to eliminate vibrato from my playing and (in classical music), I certainly didn’t double stop and slide at the same time. There were a lot of things about fiddle playing that are unique and that were exciting to me as a classical player. It feels like a simpler music, but it’s not. It’s just a more accessible music. It still requires a good deal of virtuosity. And I think that the fact that it was going to be a challenge at the same time, that I got to throw a bunch of rules out the window, was really appealing to me.”
He made a reputation in the eclectic New England scene, touring nationally with the jam band Hypnotic Clambake and playing western swing with Boston’s Bag Boys. But he liked the Steeps sound and sent them an e-mail: “ ‘Hey, would you consider taking me on as your full-time fiddler?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely, but you’ve got to move here.’ So I packed up everything in my Oldsmobile Cutlass and drove to North Carolina on July 8, 2004.”
Rounder Records founder Ken Irwin had seen the pre-Sanders band at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (N.Y.) and, even then, liked what he saw. “I was impressed by their stage presence, the exuberance. I loved Woody’s look. He was leaning down into the microphone. It was just a really cool look. I hadn’t been aware of them previous to them coming up. They hadn’t been on my radar back when they were in North Carolina.”
By the time Irwin saw them again, everything had changed for the better, including the fiddler, he says. “It was like a little kid. You don’t see them for six months, and all of a sudden they’ve grown six inches. It just seemed that they’d really grown in terms of the songwriting, in terms of the tightness of the band. They had added Nicky and he brought a lot to the band. The whole band seemed to grow. They were a new band that hadn’t been into bluegrass all that long, but they continued to grow. Often, you see a band, and a couple of them really raise their game and a couple don’t, and they have to make changes. But this band, everybody picked it up.”
That team spirit was also a survival mechanism, says Guggino. “We realized from the beginning that was going to be our only strength, our only defense out there at the bluegrass festivals. All these people came from it; their parents played bluegrass and they’d been playing since they were like five. They were born with a banjo in their hands. And that wasn’t us. We’d all played different instruments. I’d played four different instruments before I landed on the mandolin. I knew a lot about music, but there’s something to be said about playing the same instrument since you were a little kid. Nicky has done that, and that’s one reason why he’s so good. He’s had the fiddle in his hands since he was five.”
That sense of competition also convinced the Rangers that they needed to be original, to have their own songs, their own sound. They turned their perceived weakness into a major strength.
“We realized that we weren’t going to get by just playing the bluegrass standards and trying to play them as good as the other guys,” Guggino says. “So we immediately just started going for our own thing, but being a traditional bluegrass band too.”
Old School Mentors
They were also lucky to have as their manager Don Light, a personification of the best of old-school Nashville; a man who, as booking agent or manager, has worked with Lester Flatt, the Lewis Family, and a who’s who of mainstream country and southern gospel, as well as such outside-the-lines acts as Jimmy Buffett. Light’s mantra for his artists was simple—be original, or as he puts it, “Separate yourself from the pack.” Semi-retired by then, Light’s main clients were Rounder artists Dailey & Vincent, who were very quickly becoming a major force in bluegrass. So, in weekly phone conferences with Light and Dailey & Vincent, Rounder’s Irwin was also in the pipeline for the latest Steeps news.
By then, they were one of the top young bands signed to Rebel, the independent label that had championed progressive bluegrass from the Country Gentlemen on. With Rebel, the Steeps built their audience with four well-received CDs promoted with a hectic touring schedule, including high-profile festivals like Grey Fox and MerleFest (N.C.). Their first MerleFest in 2006 became even more of a milestone when they were asked to back first-generation bluegrass great Curly Seckler.
“Whoever was scheduled to do it couldn’t do it,” Woody recalls. “I wanted to make it so it wasn’t just that we were gonna meet Curly backstage and just walk out onstage. We wanted to be ready and have the show ready.” He contacted Penny Parsons, who knows everyone in the North Carolina bluegrass scene, to ask how to reach Curly’s manager. “And she said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m Curly’s manager. So why don’t we talk the set out and then we can meet up?’” They got together with Seckler at his hotel and did a little run-through. They’d done their homework, studying Flatt & Scruggs classics as well as Seckler’s current solo project, Down In Caroline.
They remember Seckler throwing some curve balls, with onstage setlist changes. But the guys’ work ethic served them well, and their meeting-of-the-generations was a hit, earning the upstarts some serious traditional bluegrass cred with the MerleFest crowd and most important, impressing their legendary boss. “They was a stick of dynamite the day I met ’em, when it come to pickin’,” Seckler remembers enthusiastically. “They did it just like clockwork, just like Lester and Earl used to do it. If you wanted one of them to do something, all you had to do was just tell ’em one time. They had it all together, there was no doubt about that. All they needed to do was step up the ladder a rung or two and meet some people. Their pickin’ was just as solid as a rock the day I met ’em, and some of the nicest people that you’ll ever shake hands with. And they were all that way. And they had so much respect for each other. That’s what it takes to really come out and make a good group, and that’s what them boys do. If one of them was to call me today and want to know if I wanted to work another show with ’em, and I’m over 92 years of age now, I’d say ‘Boys, set it up! Set it up!’”
Steve Steps In
That same year, Platt expanded the burgeoning Steep Canyon Rangers empire with the first Mountain Song Festival, an annual benefit in Brevard which has raised more than $250,000 for the Boys and Girls Club, an organization his mom has been very active in. This year’s Mountain Song Festival, with the Del McCoury Band and David Grisman, is set for Sept. 7-8, and has been sold out for months.
In 2008, Woody’s wife Shannon Whitworth, an accomplished singer-songwriter and musician, became friends with Steve Martin’s wife Anne while the Martins were vacationing in western North Carolina. Shannon’s dad had a big spaghetti dinner for everyone and the Steeps and Martin bonded. Jam sessions ensued and Martin sat in with the group onstage, notably at Mountain Song and at Joe’s Pub in New York City, where the Martins have a home.
When Martin wanted to tour with 2009’s album The Crow, his Grammy-nominated return to bluegrass (his banjo playing was part of his comedy act from the start and his 1981 LP, The Steve Martin Brothers, was half comedy/half banjo instrumentals), the Steeps were the logical choice for backup band.
Martin describes his chance meeting with the guys in two words. “Lucky me,” he says, adding, “I couldn’t have been more fortunate when I stumbled upon the Rangers in my bluegrass ramblings in North Carolina. I’m wondering how long it will be before they no longer want to be paid in shells.”
Shtick aside, he’s proven a very generous bandleader where it counts—onstage. “I love the humble approach he has to it,” Platt says. “He leaves for two songs during each show for us. That says a lot. And we don’t hold back. We try to kill and he wants us to kill. He wants us to get the best reception we can get. And he leaves most of the singing to us. And if the lighting isn’t on the band, if it’s just on him, he’s the first to mention it. It couldn’t be a better situation for us.”
Along with that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Martin, the Steeps were thinking about a label change. Rounder, with its wider distribution, a crossover track record with folks such as Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and a perennially strong presence at the Grammy Awards, made it an easy choice. For Irwin’s part, he was pleased with how far the band had come. And not just musically.
“These days, we look for a broad package,” says Irwin. “We look for a group that’s musically talented with a good business sense and a team in place, or at least a willingness to be part of a team. And by the time we started working with them, they already had the team of management with Don Light and a booking agent in Keith Case.”
The Crow tour with Martin was a sellout. Crowds flocked to see the legendary comedian, who played it pretty straight, occasionally throwing in some vintage Martin with his bluegrass version of “King Tut” and keeping the show moving with dry wit and impeccable comic timing.
Their relationship deepened with the follow-up album, Rare Bird Alert, credited to “Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers” and, along with their Grammy nomination, the Steeps have been working hard to make sure their new fans remember who they are. “That’s the whole goal now,” says Platt, who handles most of the band business. “We’re loving to work with Steve for so many reasons: the experience, the steady work, the exposure, the joy of playing good music and spending time with him, the level that it can reach with television and big stages and big festivals. But we’re also coming in behind it and trying to see how many fans we’ve made out of it, and we’re finding there’s more and more fans every night at our shows, and we’re selling out our own shows in parts of the country where we were relatively unknown, like the Chicago area or Arizona. In some cases, there will be a promoter of a large venue of, say, a thousand to three thousand seats and Steve Martin will sell it out and, of course, we’re there as Steve’s band. But that same promoter will have a venue across town that has only five hundred seats. So we’ll go back and play the Ranger-size venue, instead of the Steve-size venue. We’re really focusing on what we can gain out of that for our own long-term career.”
Martin flies to dates, providing a tour bus for the Steeps. (On their own, they tour in a far less luxurious RV). They used their time on the bus to work up the songs for Nobody Knows You. “We ended up kind of finishing the record on the bus,” says Sharp. “Right before recording, we did a festival in Arkansas, with the purpose of rehearsing on the bus. It’s nice; you feel like when you’re traveling, you’re also getting some stuff done. And that’s one of my main times for songwriting. It’s hard to do that around the house sometimes.”
You might think all that would be enough music for the guys, but everyone is active with side projects in the vibrant music scene around Asheville and Brevard. Platt and Guggino have a band called The Pisgah Pickers that plays around Brevard, an electric outfit that features Guggino on five-string Mandoblaster. When not out with the Steeps, Humphrey is busy songwriting and playing with his Songs From The Road Band, releasing two CDs, Songs From The Road and As The Crow Flies. Guggino is also exploring his ethnic roots in a traditional Italian trio that includes Sanders on violin. “I’ve been working the last couple years on learning traditional Italian folk music on the mandolin. I’m a mandolin player and I’m also Italian, and it never occurred to me that there was this whole genre of Italian folk music that was originally played on the mandolin. My grandfather kind of opened the door for me. He was a violin player, and right before he died, we would play together—a lot of classical stuff and jazz standards and he played this one mazurka, this little minor key melody and he didn’t remember what it was called. Some of that is the hardest music ever played.”
That group, along with some of the other musical sides of the Steeps, will be on display on the maiden voyage of Mountain Song at Sea (www.mountainsongatsea.com). February 1-4, 2013, The Steeps will host a mini-festival aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line ship, Norwegian Sky. The cruise is being produced with Sixthman, the same folks behind the Americana/singer-songwriter focused Cayamo Cruise.
Platt admits he had his doubts at first. “I wasn’t a huge fan of cruises, until we went on a music cruise. The music cruise is a whole different experience, ’cause everybody is there for the same reason—they love the music on board and everybody’s either a musician or a fan. When that Cayamo boat sailed away out of Miami and the music kicked off on the main pool deck, it was pretty unbelievable. It was a beautiful day and it was just packed and people were in the hot tubs watching music and in the pool watching music, and it was just perfect. It was a powerful kind of experiences and that’s what we’re gonna try to do with this one.”
The Steeps’ maiden voyage will include the Del McCoury Band, David Grisman, Tim O’Brien, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Punch Brothers, Bryan Sutton, the Krüger Brothers, and more.
While they’re living all those dreams, they don’t take anything for granted. It took a long time to get where they are, and they want to keep it going. “Even with 12 years together, if we have like a week off and then we have a show, we have this urgency to hurry up and get there and get into a corner and play the songs three times,” Platt says. “We have this work ethic that we always kind of had. We want to know that everybody is back in shape and remembers all the words and all the changes and everybody’s got it all back under their fingers. Families are growing, and time to play maybe isn’t as much as what it was before. But it always surprises me that even after 12 years, we get out together and we’re nervous and it’s ‘Lets get there early and go in the back and play our whole show.’ I don’t know if all bands do that, but we do, and I think that helps us. It keeps us tight. We bring everybody together. When we’re out there with Steve on the bus, if soundcheck is 4:30, we meet backstage at 2:00 before Steve gets there, and we work on our stuff. If the creativity slows down and gets stagnant, you can tell. People get kind of antsy and frustrated and nervous. It’s time to bring in new songs and keep it fresh and keep the creativity moving forward.”
Maybe what really separates the Steep Canyon Rangers is that, through it all—eight albums, a dozen years, and countless road miles—they’ve held on to their original dream, that it would be fun to play bluegrass with your close friends. Platt says that’s what keeps them going, and he believes it’s a big reason why their audiences come. “I think part of our connection to people is how much fun we’re having doing what we’re doing onstage, and how everybody is in it together. I think it comes across as a kind of ultimate team. We’re always working on stuff. We enjoy it. We’re excited about it.”