School of hard licks

Sometimes, there’s more to be learned outside the classroom. The Steep Canyon Rangers, now in their mid-20s, emerged as a cultural lesson for some rock-loving buddies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A year ago, they graduated with honors, so to speak, when they won the bluegrass competition at the local Mountain State Fair — entitling them to open for no less a legend than Earl Scruggs.

“Bluegrass is not flashy, it’s earthy,” mandolin player Michael Guggino said after a gig at this summer’s Bele Chere — a relative statement, depending on where you’re coming from in the mountain-music tradition.

Banjo player Graham Sharp offered more insight when he remarked: “I like the purity of the traditional sound. It’s not diluted by fancy instruments or production. It’s straightforward. We keep it traditional — even in songs we write.”

“When the harmonies are tight,” bassist/vocalist Charles Humphrey put in, “it’s like one sound.”

“One entity,” Guggino agreed.

“We’re a team — just like in sports,” said lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, a former basketball star and baseball teammate of Guggino’s (in their teen years, they played together on youth and prep teams in Brevard).

Slated to play the main stage at this weekend’s Flat Rock Music Festival, the Rangers will keep company with the most award-winning bluegrass group of the past dozen years. The Nashville Bluegrass Band has earned two Grammys and a litter of International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including four straight for Best Vocal Group (their significant contribution to the O Brother soundtrack didn’t hurt their case, either).

And the Steep Canyon Rangers have surged into that tradition with palpable pride. Following an overall win two years ago at the Rockygrass Festival, they released Mr. Taylor’s New Home (Bonfire Records, 2003) and were chosen by IBMA as one of 15 national-showcase bands.

Last month, the Rangers played Asheville’s prestigious Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. And, within two weeks of Flat Rock, they’ll play the IBMA Awards show in Louisville, Ky., and an N.C. Special Olympics benefit, followed by a Nov. 7 show in Durham with the legendary Doc Watson.

To his credit, Guggino admits he “never paid attention to bluegrass” until college. As a freshman, he switched from guitar to mandolin, enjoying the latter instrument’s greater dynamic range. The Rangers have used a succession of guest fiddlers since Lizzie Hamilton left the band when she married; Woody Platt says he appreciates the way bluegrass’ standard chord progressions make it easier to play with strangers (and, thus, to meet people).

At the Bele Chere show, Jeniffer Nicholson of Brevard recalled how, in high school, everyone considered bluegrass “something only old people listened to. It wasn’t cool at all.”

But now, she confesses, “I like the fast tempo.” Others raving about the Rangers included Chris Flanders of Asheville. “They have superb interplay,” he explained, “and harmonize well.”

Casting his lot with the 20- and 30-somethings, retiree Lee Klein of Fort Lauderdale sounded the final note.

“Let’s keep the tradition,” he urged, “before we lose it.”

What’s happening at Flat Rock

Music

Friday, Sept. 19

Main Stage:

Michael Reno Harrell (5:30 p.m.)

The Stragglers (7 p.m.)

Southern Culture on the Skids (8:30 p.m.)

Hobex (10 p.m.)

Gym Jam:

The Filthy Rich (12 a.m.)

Dining Hall:

Anon Dixon Day’s Blues Cafe (11 p.m.)

Saturday, Sept. 20

Main Stage:

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