Playing on the lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol surrounded by throngs of adoring fans is a dream realized by few bands. It’s an especially outlandish notion for a young quintet playing bluegrass, a niche style rooted in rich tradition and focused on satisfying a core contingent of diehard fans.
But when you spend part of your time backing up Steve Martin, one of the world’s foremost comedic celebrities and also a blazing, brilliant banjo player, such unlikely events become real-life opportunities. For the Steep Canyon Rangers, who have performed with Martin since 2009, playing the 2011 iteration of Washington, D.C.’s “A Capitol Fourth” Independence Day celebration is but one highlight among many.
“There’s been a lot of those,” laughs Woody Platt, singer and guitarist for the Brevard-based outfit. “Obviously the Capitol lawn last Fourth of July with that massive audience in that perfect setting; you know, to be able to play bluegrass music to that many people, I thought it was a good thing for the industry in general. Also, we played in the East Room of the White House for the president. We played Carnegie Hall and just some unbelievable venues all over the country and in Europe. It’s funny. We’ve played so many.”
The Rangers are a popular bluegrass band in their own right, heralded with an “Emerging Artist of the Year” award by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2006 and frequently landing on Billboard’s bluegrass charts. But playing with Martin and releasing a collaborative album (2011’s Rare Bird Alert) took them to otherwise unattainable heights — network TV appearances, gigs at some of the world’s premiere venues and a coronation as “Entertainer of the Year” from the IBMA awards. But the Rangers are taking these accomplishments in stride, approaching their own work with typically understated confidence.
“We obviously realize that we’ve had a lot of exposure in the last few years working with Steve,” Platt says. “We’re really just following our natural progression as far as our music goes, but on our booking and management side, I think we’re trying to seize the opportunity and take advantage of some of the large venues and large audiences and exposure that we’ve had. But as far as our music goes, I think we’ve become really comfortable with who we are and realize that we’re just trying to make the records and make the music that we’re feeling at the time.”
They utilize their newfound advantages on Nobody Knows You, their seventh album and their debut for Rounder Records. With help from producer Gary Paczosa, who also lent his steady hand to Rare Bird Alert, the Rangers manage their most polished and professional outing yet, highlighting their tonal warmth and emphasizing their tight instrumental interplay with pristine, unfettered production.
Despite the sonic upgrades, Nobody Knows You is a remarkably relaxed outing, infusing intricate picking with pop-inspired melodies and accomplishing the fusion with self-assured ease. The title track hurdles forth with a leap-frogging combo of fiddle, mandolin and banjo, pushing hard at the rock-steady tempo set by guitar and bass. The vocals, though shaded in rustic, old-school harmonies, explode with pure pop abandon in the chorus as Platt breathes uncanny charm into lines as tried and true as, “Nobody knows you quite the way I do.”
“Traditional bluegrass, it came out of a different time,” Platt says of the way the Rangers and other like-minded acts are pushing the genre forward. “We grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we started recording in the early 2000s after the influences that we had. And a lot of the younger bands these days, they don’t necessarily grow up sitting on the porch with their families playing bluegrass music. Some of them do, but we didn’t. We came into the music from different areas, and we kind of backed into it. We all had different musical interests, but our influences are really broad. Originally, we just wanted to play traditional bluegrass, and we wanted to learn how to play the music and to be accepted within the genre and within the industry. But now that we’re comfortable, everybody’s musical background and musical taste is starting to surface.”
For these Rangers, the past few years have been a blur, and they don't plan on slowing down now. They’ve been helping Martin record a new album with folk songstress Edie Brickell and plan to spend much of 2013 on the road helping the duo support that effort. They also hope to record a full-length of their own next year and tour behind it as well.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Platt says. “There’s just a lot of stuff going on, and we’re ready for it.”
Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Steep Canyon Rangers, David Grisman Sextet, The Del McCoury Band, The Kruger Brothers, Shannon Whitworth, Colin Hay (of Men at Work) and Della Mae
what: Mountain Song Festival
where: Brevard Music Center
when: Friday, Sept. 7 and Saturday, Sept. 8 ($37 to $77. Event benefits Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County. Full details and schedule at mountainsongfestival.com