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Steep Canyon Rangers' biggest break: teaming with Steve Martin

The Steep Canyon Rangers: Charles Humphrey III, left, Mike  Guggino, Woody Platt, Nicky Sanders and Graham Sharp
The Steep Canyon Rangers: Charles Humphrey III, left, Mike Guggino, Woody Platt, Nicky Sanders and Graham Sharp

Even before dreams of stardom take hold, the thing most young acts of any artistic genre wish for is a break. They look for that one bit of luck capable of thrusting a career built on craft into the spotlight.

For the celebrated North Carolina bluegrass troupe known as Steep Canyon Rangers, that break didn't come from Nashville. It didn't come from its native Asheville and Chapel Hill, N.C. It came from Hollywood.

"As a developing band, you almost hate to use the word break too often," guitarist and lead vocalist Woody Platt said. "But you always want to have something to help you gain more fans, keep more fans and make you more money — or at least enough money to be able to play music full-time.

"We felt we got our break when we got a record deal. Then we felt we got a big break when we signed to booking agencies and management. So we felt we had all this great momentum as a band.

"And then we got matched up with Steve."

Yes, the Hollywood connection who helped introduce the Rangers to audiences that probably had never heard a lick of string music in their lives is comedian, actor, author, playwright and longtime bluegrass banjo enthusiast Steve Martin.

When Martin decided to add professional touring musician to his résumé after the release of the 2009 album The Crow, he recruited the Rangers. Martin met the band through his wife, writer Anne Stringfield, and a subsequent informal jam session.

When Martin recorded a follow-up, he enlisted the Rangers as his studio band and touring band. The resulting album, Rare Bird Alert, cements one of the more unlikely bluegrass alliances in recent years.

On Thursday, the Rangers help kick off this year's Festival of the Bluegrass with a set of their own music. Then on June 21, the band returns for a sold-out Opera House concert with Martin.

"It still kind of takes me by surprise that we're even doing this," Platt said of the Rangers' work with Martin. "And really, we're not just 'doing it.' We're having a great time with Steve, who I really think is having a great time with us. We're developing into a new band. It's not just Steve and the Steep Canyon Rangers. It's almost like a band unto itself. Any way you look at it, it's a really great project that we are super excited to be involved in."

Said Martin during a recent telephone news conference: "They have the same sense of drama I have, that I like. And it just went from there.

"It's just one of those lucky things in life that you get, accidentally almost, tied up with a group of people that works out perfectly. It continues to be a good creative match."

The most recent Rangers album, Deep in the Shade, signaled a band on the critical and commercial rise upon its release in 2009. Produced by Lonesome River Band alum Ronnie Bowman, it capitalized on the songwriting talents of banjoist Graham Sharp and bassist Charles Humphrey III. But there also were a pair of traditional-minded cover tunes that came to the band not through their composers but through a newer generation of voices.

The Leadbelly classic Sylvie, for instance, was popularized by folk icons The Weavers. But Platt became aware of it through a soul-drenched version cut by the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Similarly, I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known comes from the country pen of Merle Haggard. But the Rangers were raised on the '60s version Gram Parsons recorded with the International Submarine Band.

Not surprisingly, the Rangers — completed by mandolinist Mike Guggino and fiddler Nicky Sanders — are hardly lifelong bluegrass scholars. They came to the music when they met as college students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Even then, they banded together as much for social reasons as musical ones.

"We are as much friends as anything else in this band," Platt said. "And that's important. You keep any band together because you first have a bunch of friends. Then you have a bunch of friends unified for one goal and interest.

"This band was born out of friendship. Music didn't bring us together. We were just brought together socially in college. But now we have a nice foundation that we're really proud of. We're focused on the same goals and are willing to make the same sacrifices."

Add Martin, a performer with a solid passion for bluegrass but who can't help integrating his high-profile sense of humor into the music he wrote for Rare Bird Alert, and you have a career break not just for the Rangers but an evolutionary break for the awareness of bluegrass music as a whole.

"I'm certain there are a large number of people every night we take to the stage that are hearing bluegrass for the first time," Platt said. "A lot of them might be Steve Martin fans that will follow anything he does. But Steve ends up turning them on to this music.

"I think it's a great thing for the entire industry to kind of spread bluegrass around like that and help it grow."

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