Since forming in 2000, North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers have fearlessly pushed the boundaries of bluegrass, incorporating elements of pop, country, folk rock and more. At the same time, they aren’t afraid to keep things simple if it works for the song.
For example, on new song “Going Midwest,” off their latest album “Out in the Open,” the Rangers went with a two-guitar arrangement.
“Mike Ashworth, our drummer, and I were playing it with two guitars … and it sounded so good and simple that we decided to record it that way,” says singer/guitarist Woody Platt. “It’s a really nice change of pace for our record and live shows.”
STEEP CANYON RANGERS With: Henhouse Prowlers When: 8 p.m. Feb. 3 Where: Lincoln Hall 2424 N. Lincoln Tickets: $25-$30 Info: http://www.lh-st.com/
Likewise, “Out in the Open” finds the band taking a more traditional approach to recording. Last summer the band recorded the album live without any overdubs at Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville, North Carolina, with the help of Grammy-winning singer-songwriter/producer Joe Henry.
“To me, [the title] reflects that the album was kind of made right out in the open,” says Platt. “Just nothing to hide behind. A true representation of the band.”
While it may have seemed a daunting task to record entirely live, Henry convinced them the music would be better for it, says Platt.
“[Joe] stressed the fact that if you’re just listening to yourself on playback, you’re not really listening to music,” says Platt. “So, he stressed the need to listen to the music as a whole and to think about if that music affects you in a positive way. It was a real spiritual approach to the music. I think he put us in a really good situation.”
Platt says that the album has more of a “folky approach” as a result.
Lyrically, many of the songs revolve around the theme of venturing out on your own into the unknown and being vulnerable out in the open. Banjo player Graham Sharp came up with the lyrics for “Going Midwest” after reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.”
“Out in the Open” is just one of the several projects the band has worked on in the past year. Last fall they released “The Long-Awaited Album” with comedian/banjo player and longtime collaborator Steve Martin. They also supported Martin and Martin Short on their duo tour. Currently, the band is working with their local Asheville Symphony on a new album, after successful live shows together.
“We’re a pretty focused band,” says Platt. “While we were also on the road with Steve and Marty on their tour, we were constantly writing for our new project. All of a sudden you look back and you’ve got two new albums ready to come out. It feels good to be productive and have new music to not only keep the band excited but to share with everybody.”
He adds that every project “rubs off on other things you do” and that “one thing fuels the other.”
“For the last nine years, we always had to have [Steve’s] material ready to perform and our material ready to perform,” says Platt. “So, we’re always on our toes. It keeps things exciting and fresh when one week we’re doing one show and the next we’re doing another.”
The band is looking forward to playing Chicago again. This time they’ll be joined by the band’s most recent addition, bassist Barrett Smith, who started playing with them earlier this year. They’ve known Smith since their college days.
“The departure of [bassist] Charles Humphrey was too bad. We’ve been with him a long time, the whole time,” says Platt. “But Barrett has always been there. He’s been one of our great friends and a super talented musician. So, it was actually a really good fit.
Platt admits that they don’t get to the Midwest as often as they’d like but each time they do is special. In October, the band donated instruments and music gear to students at Jenner Elementary Academy of The Arts on the near North Side of Chicago thanks to the CAN’d Aid Foundation and the Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado.
“We donate instruments and music gear to schools that can’t afford them or kids that can’t afford them,” says Platt. “It’s really rewarding.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.