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Interview: Steep Canyon Rangers Talk New Album, Festivals, and Upcoming Charleston Music Hall Gig

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I feel like there is a silent majority of music fans, myself included, that genuinely enjoys live, bluegrass music but for whatever reason never streams it when it comes to daily life. I didn’t know a lot about the Grammy winning, Steep Canyon Rangers, but that changed quickly with some research and chatting with lead singer, Woody Platt, before his Ft. Myers gig. They’ll be playing the Charleston Music Hall on February 8th, 2018.

The Steep Canyon Rangers have played some of the most prestigious venues in the world including but not limited to the: White House, Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Tiny Desk, Colbert Report, Bonnaroo, and Jimmy Fallon (with Snoop Dogg). They’re also currently touring with Steve Martin and have recorded several albums with him.

Urbanites like myself seem to carry the visual stereotype that bluegrass music involves guys in overalls strumming banjos with a straw of hay from the mouth, but I can assure you, the Steep Canyon Rangers are the furthest thing from that with their flawless playing and stylish suits. The first single off their new album, ‘Let Me Out of this Town’, has that upbeat vibe that would absolutely crush it at any country music festival.

I had the chance to speak with Steep Canyon Rangers’ lead singer and guitarist, Woody Platt, about recording their new album live, touring with Steve Martin, having commercial success as a bluegrass band, and what to expect with their intimate, Charleston Music Hall, show.

For me, as someone who has been a rock fan for so long, I think Bluegrass carries a misnomer connotation that it’s slower and more hillbilly, yet anyone that sees it lives, speaking personally having seen Bela Fleck so many times, it gets rowdy. You guys of course mix a bit of rock and country in your style…how would you articulate your style of bluegrass to someone new to your music?

Woody: “Our music is definitely rooted in bluegrass. We came out of the gate fifteen years ago as a bluegrass band but over the years we’ve let our personal musical influences seep into the music. And with the additions of drums, we’re almost like an Americana string band now. We have elements of rock, country, pop, blues. The band is a melting pot of everybody’s influences. None of us in the band grew up listening to bluegrass music. Our background is kind of all over the place with different music influences and genres and it’s what creates our sound. We don’t feel bound by bluegrass.”

Do you find it tough to commercialize? Obviously, you guys have played so many big festivals, but is there a strategy with promoting a bluegrass album?

Woody: “The type of music we play is still in the string band world. So, it’s hard to reach the pop level as far as your listening audience goes. But a large variety of clubs, venues, promoters, theatres and festivals cater to exactly what we’re doing. We’ve had the luck to be included in the bigger acoustic music festivals. And the last 8 or 9 years working with Steve Martin – that’s raised our profile some. It’s always a process to figure out a take with the size audience ours has and grow as a business and a career.”

Listening to your new single, Let Me out of this Town, I think that would be a huge crowd pleaser in any genre or festival. Do you try and push for the mega festivals like Bonnaroo?

Woody: “Oh, of course. There are certain festivals like Bonnaroo and those larger ones that are always on our radar. We’ve played Bonnaroo a couple times. But at the same time, some of the more memorable festivals that are five to ten thousand people instead of forty to a hundred thousand people, we can have more of an impact because we come in and play the main stage after dark and really hit everybody there at one time. Where at Bonnaroo we’re kind of on the side stage in the middle of the afternoon. But any kind of big, multiple genre festival that includes string bands, we want to play them.”

I read in another interview you had that you showed up to the studio to record the new album and you were then told you’d be recording it all live in small proximity with no sound barriers between you. That’s interesting to me that it was like that where you didn’t have a say.

Woody: “It’s not that we had no say. I think one of the worst things you can do making a record is hire a producer and then not listen to him. So, we walked in there and he said, “Hey, we’re going to cut the record live. You’re a live band, let’s capture your energy.” And we were like, “Hell yeah. Let’s try it.” I’ve been part of records where you cobble it together for ever and ever and by the time you get done you’re like, “What happened to the energy?” But [this album] is a very clear picture of what we sound like at that time. There’s no smoke and mirrors and we can re-create all of it on stage and it’ll sound really good.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve loved a band live, bought their album from the merch booth and throw it on at home, and I’m like, “Who is this band?”

Woody: “Yea, absolutely. It’s easy to get carried away in a studio.  There’s a lot to be said and like about studio tricks and multi-layering up a track and making it sound enormous and kind of gear it for radio or whatever. But there’s just something about making a record that sounds like the band you’re going to hear and the band that plays all the time. That’s what we did. It was quick. It was enjoyable. It never got tedious. It was never rushed. When we got a good take we moved on.”

It crossed my mind maybe a label was trying to save money recording it this way.

Woody: “We had a good budget. We just wanted to use the money on other stuff like publicity and marketing.  If you use all your money in the studio then there’s no money left to get the word out.”

Can we expect some more music videos?

Woody: “We got a really nice PR firm and we’re working on some videos. We’ve got some videographers on the road. We feel like already this record has gotten a lot of traction and we’re excited about it.”

Maybe some more Bill Hader in your new videos?

Woody: (laughing)

You guys are no strangers to Charleston, SC, having played here so many times. What are some of your favorite spots around town?

Woody: “We played the Pour House back in the day. The Charleston Music Hall. We’ve played The Music Farm. The [Zac Brown Band’s] Southern Grounds [Festival]. We’ve also played the North Charleston Performing Arts Center with Edie Brickell. With Steve Martin. And also with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. But I really think our home right now is the Charleston Music Hall. It feels great. I think it’s a really great place to hear music. I’ve only played it twice, but the sound is warm. The room works really well. It’s a good-sized room. I really like it a lot actually.”

What can we tease for the show in regards to the set list?

Woody: “I think we can tease the new record. Going back to recording live, when you come out of the studio you can play every song. When you cobble something together, you might come out of the studio and be like, “Well, we gotta learn how to play that one.” You’re down in the studio staring at charts and nobody really remembers how it goes. But with this record, right out of the gate, we’re playing everything. And another cool thing. Even if the crowd has never seen the band, and they don’t know what’s new and what’s not, they’ll feel the energy when a band is playing a new song. It just happens.  The band is excited and they’re not just going through the motions. So, we’ll do that. Play 80-90% of the new record and take a cross-section of the ones we love the most from past projects and stick them in there.”


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