As the Brevard-based Americana outfit Steep Canyon Rangers prepare for the release of their ninth solo record, Radio — the follow up to 2013’s Grammy Award-winning Nobody Knows You — they’re also set to celebrate an important milestone for both the band and their community. The 10th anniversary of the Mountain Song Festival, an event started by the Steeps, takes place at the Brevard Music Center Friday, Sept. 11 through Sunday, Sept. 13.
“It really ties us back to into the community,” banjo player and singer Graham Sharp says. “We travel so much that we can often feel a little disconnected from home, and this really brings us back in.”
The festival began a decade ago when the group’s guitar player and lead vocalist, Woody Platt, was prodded by his mom, Cindy Platt — an “awesome, community-minded woman,” according to Sharp. She was on the board of the Boys & Girls Club at the time, and the organization was short on funds, so Platt and John Felty, his former bandmate in Jupiter Coyote, co-founded the festival to raise money for them. The Steep Canyon Rangers (including bassist Charles R. Humphrey III, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin and vocals and Michael Ashworth on box kit and vocals) signed on as perpetual hosts for the annual event.
Although not quite the household names that they are today, the group’s reputation was already sterling in the bluegrass world. The Steeps were able to secure Doc Watson for the first year and book the 1,800 permanent-seat Brevard Music Center (with plenty of lawn seating as well), which comes with the elegant backdrop of the Pisgah National Forest. In 10 years’ time, the festival has stretched from one to three days and raised a half-million dollars for the Boys & Girls Club, as well as becoming a signature event for the band and a mark of its continued rise in the music world.
“It’s always been reflective of our position in the music scene,” Sharp says. “It’s a decent amount of bluegrass, but it also branches out a bit. We try to balance between people we know the audience will love, like Ricky Skaggs and the Del McCoury Band, and also have the audience trust us a bit to bring in new stuff — like this year, we’re going to have The Milk Carton Kids.” The festival also features some of the region’s top roots talent, like Town Mountain and singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth.
Most importantly, the Steep Canyon Rangers will play each of the three nights, and Sharp promises a surprise guest will be coming in for the weekend.
Tenth anniversary aside, celebration seems in order, given the band’s fortunes. Collaborations with comedian and actor Steve Martin, a fierce banjo player, have given the group an increased national profile. So has the band’s hard-touring ways and powerful, consummate live shows.
For Radio, the Steeps enlisted the help of Dobro legend Jerry Douglas to produce, a move Sharp calls “obvious, [because] Jerry’s the dude, a bluegrass hero, not just for the Dobro but in a lot of ways.” He continues, “What attracted us to him is that he’s at the top of the world in bluegrass, but he also has a lot of experience outside the world of bluegrass. We felt like he was going to be the perfect fit for the record. And I think he was.”
The resulting album reaffirms the band’s assured instrumental chops and comfort with subtly adapting traditional instrumentation (banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and box kit) to songs grounded in, but not limited by, bluegrass and honky-tonk archetypes. While the Steep Canyon Rangers’ sound never strays too far from their signature approach, it’s easy to note the bursts of distortion that mark the beginning of “Blow Me Away” or the rocklike bridge on the title track as moments where the band feels far from tied to tradition.
Those songs are sure to get some play at the Mountain Song Festival, but the weekend is really about the relationship of the Steep Canyon Rangers and the Western North Carolina music scene. “[They have], without a doubt, forged their own niche within Americana and the bluegrass scene as well,” Felty says of the musicians. “Not only have they helped put Western North Carolina back on the map, but have helped make it an epicenter. In my opinion, they have aided bluegrass music to be accepted and appreciated by a more mainstream audience with all their achievements.”