Steve Martin is a comedian. Woody Platt is a guitarist and singer in the North Carolina bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers. A decade ago, if you told Platt that he'd one day play the White House and some of the biggest music festivals in the world with Martin, he likely would have laughed. The Rangers, after all, never intended to play music full-time, much less big-time.
"It was truly just an informal gathering of friends when we started playing—no expectation and no goals," says Platt of the Rangers' beginnings at UNC-Chapel Hill around 2001. "There was really nothing in the cards that could have foreshadowed or foreseen where we are now."
But in 2008, an old friend and longtime supporter of the Rangers invited the quintet to a dinner party in western North Carolina. That friend, Anne Stringfield, had met Martin while she worked at the New Yorker and eventually married him. The Rangers arrived to dinner with their instruments and picked with him for hours in the backyard. Martin joined them onstage for a song a few weeks later in New York City.
They'd spent six years touring their music hard and slowly building an audience of traditional bluegrass. After that encounter with Martin, they've spent the past four years functioning as his backing band and becoming popular emissaries for traditional roots music.
It started in 2009 with a tour meant to support Martin's first bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo. It worked, and Martin stuck with the Rangers. They headlined Merlefest, western North Carolina's bellwether roots music festival, in 2010. They backed Martin on 2011's Rare Bird Alert, their first co-release. The record featured a guest spot from Paul McCartney, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's bluegrass chart, peaked No. 43 on the Billboard Top 200 and earned a Grammy nomination. They've taken the show to Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and the East Room of the White House.
The Rangers have not let the momentum stop with Martin: They signed to Martin's home label, Rounder, picked up a Grammy of their own for 2012's Nobody Knows You, and just two weeks ago raised $50,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County, N.C., at their own sold-out Mountain Song Festival in Brevard.
Sometimes, you're just at the right dinner party at the right time.
Mike Guggino had given up on his music degree at UNC-Asheville. He'd decided that he didn't want to turn a hobby into a profession. Playing music ought to be fun, he reckoned. But then Woody Platt, an old friend, returned from college in Chapel Hill.
"Woody came back from college and had met Graham [Sharp] and Charles [Humphrey] and started this bluegrass band," remembers Guggino. "He said, 'Why don't you come play mandolin with us?'"
The Steep Canyon Rangers had released a record on the short-lived Yep Roc Records subsidiary Bonfire Records, but they weren't so serious yet. Guggino obliged, joining Platt, Sharp, Humphrey and fiddler Lizzie Hamilton. They'd been gigging plenty in Chapel Hill, spearheading end-of-semester parties, playing rowdy shows at The Cave and The Mellow Mushroom and picking casually at parties. They had a small following, but even then, the idea of pursuing music seriously seemed alien. Without the grad school-focused Hamilton, they moved to Asheville for what Platt fondly says turned into "music camp all the time."
"We all graduated college," says Guggino, "and nobody really had a game plan. We moved into a house together and literally all lived together and just practiced all the time individually and as a band."
The guys sat around and "wrote songs and just practiced our instruments and learned how to play bluegrass the right way," Guggino says. They started touring more and, before settling in Asheville, caught the attention of Rebel Records, a Charlottesville, Va., label committed to old-school bluegrass. Rebel offered the band a four-album deal.
"They had three really good singers. They were all good musicians, and they just had a good chemistry," explains Rebel's Mark Freeman. "We were excited."
Founded in 1960, Rebel Records is the first-ever label devoted only to bluegrass. Their catalog features a laudable list of genre stars, including Dehlia Low, Dave Evans and Ralph Stanley. "I thought Rebel Records was perfect for what we were trying to do," says Platt. The band's self-titled 2004 release earned little notice, but its follow-up, One Dime at a Time, rose to No. 13 on the bluegrass charts and led to a 2006 IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award.
They released two more albums on Rebel before linking with Martin, each steadily increasing their profile in the bluegrass community. But Martin pushed them far outside of that comfort zone, putting them in front of crowds who weren't necessarily familiar with this sound and linking them with Rounder, for whom the term "roots music" is incredibly inclusive. A glance at Rounder's catalogue reveals a bevy of musicians not concerned with checking genre boxes—Alison Krauss, Philip Glass and Loudon Wainwright III. Label mates Della Mae, an all-female string band, are a classic case of musicians who are inspired by traditional bluegrass and old-time sounds but not concerned with replicating that music's specifications.
"There's a formula for traditional bluegrass. The formula will never work for us because we're five females—the keys that we sing our songs in are not the keys that Bill Monroe was able to sing in," explains Della Mae's mandolin player, Jenni Lyn Gardner. "[Rounder] have given us complete artistic freedom."
The Rangers' serendipitous encounter with Martin has allowed them to serve their fairly strict, suited-up take on bluegrass to audiences often unfamiliar with it. Martin's often-funny songs and incandescent stage persona haven't hurt.
"I think Steve Martin has been respectful to the music and to the people in the community," says Della Mae's Gardner. "He allowed access for so many more people to see the music. He's pulled the curtain back to this whole different audience for bluegrass music."
Hank Smith plays banjo in local acts Barefoot Manner and Kickin Grass. Both are far less traditional than the Rangers. He equates the Rangers' opportunity with that of The Band working with Bob Dylan—a great group finding a bigger crowd thanks to their relationship with a bona fide star.
"Bluegrass has become a bigger umbrella for [acoustic music], and the Rangers fit real nicely right in the middle of it," Smith says. "They've positioned themselves in a great way, artistically as well as opportunity-wise."
Platt says that thousands of people show up to see Martin each night without concrete expectations. Perhaps they're there because of his music or his comedy, without an idea of what bluegrass sounds like aside from Hollywood stereotypes. The band gets the rare chance to show them that the music is deeper than Deliverance suggests.
"They see a good bluegrass show and they leave," Platt says. "I think a lot of them leave fans of the music."
Guggino takes pride in that role. "We approach it with a great deal of care and respect for the music because we realize that we may be the first bluegrass band that these folks are seeing," he says. "I think to [some audiences] we sound as traditional as anybody. Because this might be the first time they're hearing banjo music, to them we sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. To us, maybe we're not being traditional."
Indeed, the Rangers have stretched their sound, even adding drums last year. They've become a more ambitious band through their association with Martin, pushing the limits of their so-called traditionalism into new molds.
Throughout his career, Martin has shifted roles often, from stand-up comedian to acting to writing. Platt doesn't know how long Martin—now two albums and a Beatles collaboration into his musical career—will continue with bluegrass. Regardless, he knows this has been an opportunity to build a bigger fan base not only for his band but also for his genre. This weekend, the band that was once IBMA's rising new star will headline the association's biggest annual event alongside Martin.
"I feel like we've reached some goals before we really set them," says Platt. "We just feel really lucky and aren't taking it for granted. We're still trying to get better, still working as hard as we can to make this a successful career."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Found sounds."