Bluegrass Roots

By Liquid Todd

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Posted August 23, 2012 in Feature Story

With a boost from Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers made America rediscover the banjo

The Steep Canyon Rangers probably is most recognized as “the band with Steve Martin,” but the group developed is music reputation way before Martin joined the fun. Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, Mike Guggino, Charles R. Humphrey III and Nicky Sanders released their first album Old Dreams and New Dreams under the Steep Canyon Rangers moniker back in 2001 and continued to release four more records before being nominated for “Album and Gospel Performance of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association—and before Steve Martin jumped on the banjo bandwagon in 2009. It was during a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion that Martin began playing with the band. Along with actor-turned-musician, the Steep Canyon Rangers took its newly formed show on the road to the Hardly Strickly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, Carnegie Hall in New York and Benaroya Hall in Seattle and in later years to Bonnaroo and A Capitol Fourth celebration. Last year, Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers recorded Rare Bird Alert and were recognized as Entertainers of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. They continue their musical relationship with two stops in the IE this month. The Weekly recently chatted with guitarist/vocalist Woody Platt to discuss the group and working with Martin.

You’ve done a whole album (Rare Bird Alert, 2011) and toured all over the world with the legendary Steve Martin singing, talking and playing his banjo with the band onstage. I was wondering if there were any other comedian/actor/director/producers you wanted to work with.

(Laughs) Yeah, I’d like to work with all of ’em! But I don’t know of any others so I’m glad we got to work with Steve.

It looks like you guys have a great time on stage and the audiences seem to really love the show. Especially the tune “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” How has it been for you guys?

It’s been an amazing experience. We played a lot of really wonderful shows. It’s kept us very busy and we’ve learned a lot.

What have you learned from Steve Martin?

We’ve played a lot of shows as the Steep Canyon Rangers but doing it night after night after night you just naturally get more comfortable. And when you watch Steve working on stage it kind of rubs off on you. It just seems like we’ve become better entertainers.

So what roles does Steve Martin play in your live show. How does it work?

Just a lot of interplay. Steve’s the middleman; the frontman; the funnyman . . . and he incorporates us into the humor throughout the show.

How would you say bluegrass is doing in America as a genre?

Well it depends who you ask.

Well I’m asking you.

Okay, I think it depends on who I would ask then. I think—the traditional side of the music is maybe suffering a little bit—trying to maintain that traditional core sound and fanbase. But at the same time I think the way the roots of bluegrass have kind of grown out and turned into these branches and different styles of music . . . there is a lot of that. So in the broad sense it’s doing really well.

Every living art form needs to be able to evolve and accept and be influenced by new ideas and new sounds. Otherwise it’s just a museum exhibit.

Absolutely. And bluegrass has done that and is constantly doing that. And even the players who grew up in the traditional format—a lot of them have branched out and are taking it in new directions. So I think the genre on the whole is really healthy because of the impact it is having on the music scene on a much larger scale.

So when you guys formed the band back in North Carolina when you were all in college why did you pick bluegrass?

It was something that was around us all our lives—just being from North Carolina—but when we were in college our banjo player got into the banjo through Jerry Garcia (from the Grateful Dead). And once you have a banjo . . .

 . . . next thing you know you’re playing bluegrass.

Pretty quick, yeah. We just fell into it and then we learned very quickly that we were in a great place to learn. There were so many first and second generation older players out in the county around Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We just went and found them and did a cool kind of research that way and got lessons and really got into it.

I’m sure there are a lot of traditionalist bluegrass fans who don’t think you should be working with a guy like Steve Martin. Do you take a lot of heat for that?

I think some people think we’re just riding Steve just for the hype. And I think some people had a hard time accepting Steve as a great banjo player.

Tell me honestly: Is Steve really a great banjo player?

Yes he is and I’ll tell you why. It’s because he has his own style. And it’s a great style. He can impress an audience with his speed and with the melodies that he plays. Everything he plays he wrote and when you hear him come on the radio you know it’s him. He’s never copied anybody. He learned how to play his own way and it’s good. It’s really well-executed.

You guys are pretty much on tour all the time, right? How many dates do you play a year?

About 125. 130.

So that’s not horribly brutal.

Oh it’s still brutal . . . but it’s not horribly brutal.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at Pechanga Resort and Casino, 45000 Pechanga Pkwy., Temecula, (951) 693-1819; www.pechanga.com, www.steepcanyon.com. Fri, Aug. 24. 8pm. $60-$85; at McCallum Theatre, 7300 Fred Waring Dr., Palm Desert, (760) 340-ARTS; www.mccallumtheatre.com. Fri, Aug. 31. 8pm. $65-$125.


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