For the Steep Canyon Rangers, 2009 was a remarkable year. The Brevard-based band — Woody Platt (guitar and lead vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo, harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin and harmony vocals), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass and harmony vocals) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle and harmony vocals) — released its fourth studio album, Deep in the Shade, for Rebel Records. It hit the top 10 on the Billboard bluegrass albums chart in October and rose to No. 3, the band's highest Billboard chart spot to date.
Mid-year, the band hooked up with comedian and banjo player Steve Martin for a tour that took them everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Ryman Auditorium. The collaboration unleashed a tidal wave of publicity. Martin and the band scored appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and The View, as well as NPR's World Cafe.
In September, the band hosted its own Mountain Song Festival in Brevard. Martin, who was a surprise guest in 2008, was on the bill in '09. The four-year-old event sold out. And by year's end, the Steep Canyon Rangers wrapped up a 16-show tour in Germany with two other bands.
recently took time to talk with Xpress about the past year and what's next for the Steep Canyon Rangers.
On the band's past year:
"We had a special year. We thought we started really strong in January. We were on the verge of releasing a new record, and we were excited about where the Steep Canyon Rangers were. Then the Steve Martin thing kind of just happened, and that changed things a lot because it was so unexpected. It made for an exciting twist to a year that was going so well."
On connecting with Steve Martin:
"My older brother has been friends with Steve's wife for a long time, dating way back. Her family vacations in Brevard, and Steve came along and that's how we met. We got invited to an informal jam session a couple of years ago, and that led to Steve wanting to come to [the Mountain Song Festival]. Steve did a few tunes and I think that's where it really clicked. We gave him a good base to play his music on, and you could feel the chemistry.
"About six months later, he just called and said his record was coming out and he asked us to play with him in L.A., then in New York, and it went straight from there."
On the band's goals:
"Aside from trying to make music that we're proud of, I think we want to help take bluegrass to new audiences, and this year, we did that. On the Steve Martin tour, I can't tell you how many people came up to us and said, 'This is my first bluegrass concert.' But we've always tried to do that. We would play anywhere. We would jump into the darkest, smokiest bar and play at 11 at night, then drive and play an after-church gig. We haven't let any sort of genre restrictions keep a boundary on us. That's been fun and we're proud of that."
On the state of bluegrass:
"I think of it in two ways. It's everywhere and it's thriving at one point. But then you don't really know if the audience is there. The fact that it's a small, niche market I think is really wonderful. But as someone who makes a living at it, I wish it could be more mainstream. It's American music. It's roots music. And it's fun to play and fun to watch."
"We have really good songwriters. Graham and Charles treat songwriting like a job. They love it , but they do it all the time, so we have a lot to pick from. Also, we're a band, so everybody's voice is heard all the time, so I feel there's a lot of collective effort to what we do."
On what's next:
"We'll probably get back in the studio. We're going to balance our schedule in a new way and try to raise the level of gigs we play as a whole and see if we can take it to the next level as a business.
"We've managed to keep everybody heading for the same goals, for the most part, and focused and excited. And we've managed to make a living at it. The bottom line is we're really good friends. I think that's our hidden secret — our friendship is deep. I'm proud of what we have and I think all of us understand that we're lucky."
Contact Jason Sandford at 251-1333, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org
who: The Steep Canyon Rangers (with The Freight Hoppers)
what: Brevard-based band keeps building on breakout year in 2009
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Jan. 8 (8 p.m. $14 in advance, $16 at the door. theorangepeel.net)