Strict bluegrass fans are constantly on the patrol for which bands consider themselves traditional and which ones don't. Meanwhile, the laidback fans don't really care as much, as long as the music is fresh and meaningful. As one of the most promising young bands in bluegrass, the Steep Canyon Rangers find themselves pleasing both audiences.
"I don't think there's any question that we're a traditional bluegrass band," says Woody Platt, the guitarist and lead vocalist in the five-man band. "We break the tradition in some ways and we venture into different markets -- whereas some bluegrass bands might only play in the traditional venues, like the theaters and festivals that are strictly bluegrass. We play that kind of music, but we take it to all venues and all age groups. All hours of the night, we'll play anywhere."
That's not an exaggeration. After they won the IBMA Award for emerging artist in 2006, the phone started ringing a whole lot more. They've played the Grand Ole Opry twice, the esteemed Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco and festivals in Canada, Sweden and Ireland. This year, they backed one of their heroes, Curly Seckler, at Merlefest, the largest music festival in their home state of North Carolina. As one of the great tenor singers in bluegrass, Seckler toured with Flatt & Scruggs for 12 years and recorded more than 100 songs with the duo. Considering their ease at backing up a legend, the Rangers appeared to know every last tune in the Flatt & Scruggs catalog.
However, don't mistake these guys for a cover band.
"Our music has a traditional format, but it's original," Platt says. "It's brand new. We're not copying the first music of the tradition. We're creating our own music inspired by the tradition."
Mandolin player Mike Guggino agrees. "I think that makes us even more traditional because that's what all those first-generation bluegrass bands did," he explains. "They were playing their own material, and that's what we try to do -- play bluegrass and copy that bluegrass sound, but play our own style and our own songs."
After reaching No. 1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited radio chart in 2006 with "One Dime at a Time," the group returned to the studio with Ronnie Bowman (an alumnus of the groundbreaking Lonesome River Band) to record Lovin' Pretty Women. Plus, they launched their own music festival in Brevard, N.C., and secured big names like Earl Scruggs and Del McCoury to perform there. That respect for previous generations stretches beyond just the music -- in their matching dark suits, these guys are stylin'.
"When we started dressing up nice, it was a throwback to the earlier era of bluegrass," says Graham Sharp, who plays banjo and writes most of the material. "When you see old pictures of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, they're all dressed up nice. That's how it started. The fans really started appreciating it, and people will come up to you after a show and say, 'Thanks for doing that.' It shows that you care a little bit, enough about it to look nice up there. ... We come from the theory that any little thing you can do on stage to help is a good thing. If people will think you sound a little bit better because you look nicer, then it's worth dressing up."
If you put five handsome, impeccably dressed men on stage, and if they're musicians on top of that, of course the women will start to notice. Isn't that why most guys pick up a guitar? Still, the band hopes they will ultimately lead their fans to discovering bluegrass.
"I don't know if it's a reverse compliment when people say, 'We don't like bluegrass but we like you guys.' We can't say how many times we've heard that," says bass player Charles Humphrey III, as everybody in the band laughs at the familiar phrase. "I guess it is a compliment. They get into their Steep Canyon Rangers, explore their database, and that leads them to the other branches of bluegrass."
Guggino chimes in, "That's probably how we all got into bluegrass, too, by listening to non-traditional, new acoustic music like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, New Grass Revival or Leftover Salmon. Then we worked our way back into the traditional bluegrass."
Platt, Sharp and Humphrey met in college and started picking together, informally. Guggino, a friend of Platt's, came along shortly thereafter. They found a common interest in bluegrass music and decided to make a career of it. When graduation rolled around, they decided to split the rent in a mountain house near Asheville, N.C. If nothing else, they grew accustomed to living in close quarters, a principal requirement for a constantly touring band.
Although it was a struggle in the early years, the energetic ensemble started picking up gigs in the area, as well as in Colorado. Fiddle player Nicky Sanders, who hails from Boston, joined the lineup in 2004. Although some members teach private lessons on the side, the Steep Canyon Rangers have proudly made bluegrass music their livelihood.
Sharp says a diverse repertoire -- a slow instrumental, gospel songs and even a NASCAR novelty -- keeps the audience guessing about what's going to happen next.
"We have old-timers who come up to us and say, 'I've been listening to bluegrass for 50 years, and you guys are the best bluegrass band I've ever seen,'" Sharp explains. "That's a small percentage of the audience, but to have anybody say that, I'm like, 'Wow, are you serious?' It's a big compliment because we try to do things a little bit different, to stick in people's minds like that."