Steep Canyon Rangers and Pinkeye release new albums

NEW BEGINNINGS: The Steep Canyon Rangers' lineup now includes vocalist/guitarist Aaron Burdett, third from right. Photo by Sandlin Gaither

Barrett Smith’s initial reaction to his bandmate’s news was surprisingly calm.

Steep Canyon Rangers vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt was leaving the Grammy-winning bluegrass ensemble. A founding member, Platt had been touring steadily for over 20 years and wanted to spend more time in Brevard with his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth, and their son, Rivers.

“I’ve known Woody a long time. He’s been a close friend way before we were in this band together. So, I was happy for him,” says Smith, the group’s bassist since 2018. “I’m happy for people when they make really drastic changes, even if they’re not all positive. It’s just like, ‘Well, at least you’re living and making some big changes.’”

However, after the initial serenity wore off, Smith began to panic — and he says everyone else in the band did, too.

“Losing Woody is a lot of the identity of the band. Not all of it, but a lot of it was really wrapped up in Woody,” Smith says. “It’s like an extension of Woody in a lot of ways.”

Fortunately, Platt had no intentions of leaving his longtime friends high and dry. Though he continued to perform with the Rangers after the announcement was made public in April 2022, he also didn’t want his bandmates to drag their feet when it came to replacing him. According to Smith, outside forces made sure they didn’t.

“We didn’t mean for it to become public knowledge that Woody was leaving when it did. Honestly, it was kind of a secret amongst us. [But] somebody found out,” he says. “And then, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh sh*t! Everybody knows.’ But it was kind of good in a way because it forced our hand a little bit.”

Though the Rangers have seen a handful of lineup changes over the years, Smith notes that recent moves have been more calculated and rooted in long-term relationships. Multi-instrumentalist Mike Ashworth, who joined in 2013, is the childhood best friend of founding member Mike Guggino (mandolin/mandola), and Smith had been close with everyone in the band for nearly a decade. Graham Sharp (banjo) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) round out the ensemble.

The band invited several musicians to submit recorded tryouts for Platt’s role. Smith also consulted Martin Anderson, music director for WNCW, who suggested Aaron Burdett.

After hearing some of Burdett’s work, Smith began lobbying for him. And once Burdett submitted his recordings, everyone else in the band “had the same reaction that I did,” says Smith. “Like, ‘OK, nothing else has really made sense, but this actually makes really good sense to us pretty deeply.’ And we were right.”

The proof is on the Rangers’ new LP, Morning Shift, which was released in early September. By the time the band went to the Inn Bat Cave with producer Darrell Scott and engineer Dave Sinko to cut its 14th studio album, Burdett had been playing with the group for a few months — beginning with what Smith calls getting thrown “into the deep end” in front of 17,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. The newest Ranger handled the spotlight well.

“Luckily for Aaron, he didn’t have to be Woody. He didn’t have to take the thing on his shoulders. It’s not like we lost Mick Jagger or Robert Plant here. Woody just wasn’t playing that role,” Smith says. “We were already spreading the vocals around a lot like we were like the Eagles or The Band or somebody like that. That’s just what we did. So, in that process, all the other singers in the band really have stepped up as well and instrumentally.”

While Smith notes that the group loves making music at Echo Mountain Recording, he says it often proves difficult to stay focused in one’s hometown where day-to-day life can easily creep in. But with a makeshift studio set up at the Inn Bat Cave, distractions proved minimal, and the latest iteration of the Rangers found further inspiration under Scott’s taskmaster leadership.

“Darrell was a very engaged producer, and he had ideas about how we could maximize what we are,” Smith says. “He didn’t have ideas like, ‘I think y’all should do this because I’m the master architect of this.’ He was like, ‘I think y’all should do this because this is what is good about y’all in my perspective, and I want to exploit it and celebrate it.’”

One challenge set forth by Scott was to have at least one instrumental track on Morning Shift. Though the band initially pushed back on the idea, Scott insisted, and the Rangers got to work. They took “Old Stone House,” the introduction that they’ve long played live in front of “Call the Captain,” as a starting point. Each member then brought additional ideas to the table and built the beautiful medley “Old Stone House/Handlebars/Chimney Rock.”

Though the album features plenty of imagery-rich songwriting — particularly on opening track “Hominy Valley” — for which the Rangers have become known, the extended focus on instrumentation provides a clear standout on the new collection and is one of many encouraging elements for the band to build on going forward.

Conjunctivitis crew

In October 2021 at Sly Grog Lounge, Asheville-based punk band Pinkeye played its debut show and brought an infectious energy to the stage.

“We’re not ones to stand still, that’s for sure,” says guitarist Joe Hooten. “We’ve played supertiny rooms like The Cave in Chapel Hill, and we’re just vibrating at a high frequency. I remember literally bouncing off The Cave walls the first time we played there. That’s how practices are, too — it’s natural and not canned. It’s pure energy: the real deal.”

Such unfiltered passion for music and performing comes naturally for a group forged from a deep love of early punk bands such as The Stooges, MC5 and Dead Boys. Bassist Scott Sturdy and guitarist John Kennedy sought comfort in these rebellious rockers during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, jamming occasionally on Kennedy’s porch.

“There’s a looseness to [those pioneering bands’] rhythm that punk turned away from with the Ramones — who I also love,” says drummer Chad Clay. “I also unapologetically love grunge bands like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr., who would have and did call themselves punk.”

SUPERPUNKS: Pinkeye has rocked many stages, including Asheville’s revered The Orange Peel. Photo by Heather Burditt

While those influences are evident, the quartet has developed its own electrifying sound and fostered a democratic songwriting process, resulting in seven originals for its debut EP, Everything Is Stupid, which was released in August. Clay notes that he and his bandmates bring complete songs to rehearsals, as well as single riffs that are built out as a unit. The lack of drama and ego among the group also helps with productivity.

“There’s no prima donna lead singer, no made-up narrative that we use to promote the group, no need for smoke and mirrors,” Clay says. “It’s really refreshing to have a balance within a band like Pinkeye. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t work as well as it does.”

The four instrumentalists also all contributed vocals to the collection under what Sturdy calls “a ‘you wrote it, you sing it’” rule. But regardless of who’s at the mic at any given moment, the quick-burst tracks like “Moody” and “Merch Girl” pack an appealing punk punch.

“I feel like every song is us barreling down Old Fort [Mountain] in a Peterbilt [tractor-trailer], ignoring the runaway truck ramps, mostly out of control, barely keeping it in between the lines,” Clay says. “No matter who’s singing, it’s always exhilarating.”

Pinkeye sought to capture that raucous sound by recording Everything Is Stupid live under the guidance of local engineer Kevin Boggs. Clay notes that there’s “a balance between producing the life out of something and not doing enough to clarify the music.” As a cautionary tale, he points to Iggy Pop going back and undoing a lot of the mixing that David Bowie did to early Stooges recordings and rereleasing the tracks, which Clay now finds almost indecipherable.

“Kevin got so much clarity with us without using any overdubs — that really deserves recognition,” Clay says. “Most of the EP is first or second takes. Maybe one went to a third take because I broke my hi-hat clutch midsong. We all just listened back and said, ‘Yeah, that’s the energy we want.’”

Pinkeye also hired Adam Matza at Magic Ears Mastering to put the final touches on the EP. The high-quality recorded material and a headlining performance at the inaugural AVL Punk Fest in September at The Outpost serve as the band’s latest contributions to the city’s suddenly thriving punk scene.

“I think that so many residents of Asheville are working so hard just to get by that the typical [musical] fare isn’t speaking to them. People want to feel what they are listening to, both emotionally and often physically,” Clay says. “Punk shows are a release. I would so much rather play for a few dozen really engaged, really committed punk fans than to be background music for hundreds or more who mostly don’t listen and can’t remember what they’ve seen.”

The drummer adds that the wealth of talented local punk bands also generally helps each other out, which has played a major role in the genre’s recent resurgence. “Punks are typically distrusting of most organizations and institutions, so we’ve got to stick together,” he says. “I love being part of a community that supports each other not only when we are on top but when we struggle, too.”

While Pinkeye has already established itself as a major local player, the band feels as if it’s just getting started. Clay notes that Everything Is Stupid took longer to release than the group intended and that multiple new songs have already been written. While each member is confident that a follow-up project will come together more quickly, Hooten has his sights on something even more ambitious.

“I’m an album guy. EPs and singles are fine and all, but I believe in the concept of the album,” he says. “Pinkeye should get back into the studio soon and capture more of that raw power that we’d love to share with the world.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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