Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers Talks "Nobody Knows You"

This week, The Steep Canyon Rangers released their new album, Nobody Knows You, via Rounder Records. New listeners may recognize the band's name as Steve Martin's touring bluegrass band, who also recorded with him on his latest album, Rare Bird Alert.

I would guess that there are many hardcore bluegrass fans who have been listening to the band's records over the years, as well new listeners who may be looking to explore the Steep Canyon Rangers' discography beyond their work with Mr. Martin. The good news for new listeners, as well as longtime followers, is that Nobody Knows You offers much for all to enjoy.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Woody Platt about his musical influences, the history of the Steep Canyon Rangers, the group's work with Steve Martin, and the making of Nobody Knows You. Here's our conversation:

As a guitar player who are your biggest influences?

Woody: My guitar influences are mainly from the folk/bluegrass/americana genres. I have always really liked Doc Watson's style, and his playing was probably the first flatpicking style I ever heard. My other influences are Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin, because of their rhythm guitar styles and the runs they play in between the chord changes. And of course, Tony Rice, because of his innovative lead playing and amazing rhythm approach!

How do you think these influences come out in your own playing, songwriting, and performing?

Woody: I think I have incorporated several runs and licks from each of these influences into my style. I focus on dynamic playing through punchy rhythm.

For listeners who may have discovered the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers from your work with Steve Martin, I'd like to ask you a few questions regarding the band's history.

First, can you discuss how and when the Steep Canyon Rangers formed?

Sure. The Steep Canyon Rangers formed in Chapel Hill, N.C. while we were attending the University of North Carolina. Graham (banjo), Charles (bass) and myself met our freshmen year in school. We had years to develop our friendship and during our senior year in school we decided to start playing bluegrass.

Graham had a banjo and Charles was renting a bass from the music department. We started picking there because the bass had to stay in the building. Eventually Charles got his own bass and I just kind of joined in and really loved it. I really give them credit (for better or for worse) for dragging me into this bluegrass career.

Mike was a childhood friend of mine and he had recently sold a saxophone to get a mandolin, so during a visit home we met up and started playing and singing. Eventually we all got together and the early stage of the band was formed. After a few years and several different fiddler players (Lizze Hamilton was the original) we had the luck of finding Nicky Sanders (well, he found us!) who is an outstanding fiddler and band member. Nicky has been in the band now for close to 8 years.

How and when did you meet, connect with, and begin playing with Steve Martin?

Woody: We met Steve at an informal dinner party/jam session in 2008. We were introduced to Steve through his wife, whom we had known for several years. In 2009, Steve sat in with us at our festival (Mountain Song Festival) as a total surprise to the audience. The "sit in" went so well, we did it again in New York City later that year.

Shortly after that, Steve decided to tour to support his new release The Crow and we were very lucky to get the call to the band to play with him. From the start with Steve, we have all had a great musical connection. We really like his playing and writing, and he feels the same about SCR.

How has working with Steve Martin influenced your own personal development, writing, and performing?

Woody: Working with Steve has allowed me to grow and be more and more confident on stage as a player/singer. We have played some of the nicest venues and largest festivals in the country, allowing us day in and day out experience in front of large crowds. Also, the TV exposure and the pressure that comes with that type of thing has been really good for us.

How would you say working with Steve Martin has most influenced and benefited the band?

The biggest benefits for us have been the exposure for our group through the live shows, written press, and television. Also, we have a co-record Rare Bird Alert that has sold quite well. The challenge has been balancing the two touring schedules. We love touring with Steve, but we still need to tour on our own to help maintain our own identity (as SCR).

Did the band have any preconceived direction for the new record, or was it a song-by-song basis that shaped the collection of songs?

Woody: There was no real plan, other than to make a record with these new songs that were being written within the group. It is just a collection of songs from a time period. I do think that we are writing and singing songs that are more modern and "relevant"  thematically. We've also been steering away from some of the over-used bluegrass song themes. But in the end, we really just wanted to not be put in a box, and to feel like we could just go ahead and record whatever tunes we were excited about!

Can you briefly describe how and when the band working on what would become Nobody Knows You?

Woody: We mainly worked on this new project while on the road with Steve. We had lots of time on the bus and time before sound check each day to focus on our own new project. We took good advantage of our free time while traveling.

Our songs typically start with the songwriter (Graham and/ or Charles) sitting down with me to see if we can get it started, and if I can sing it or feel good about it in some way. From that point, if it is working we bring it to the band and then everyone jumps in and contributes ideas.

Were the songs for Nobody Knows You written before heading into the studio?

Woody: When we went into Echo Mountain to record this album, we had 15 or so songs ready, knowing that only 12 of them would make the cut. We have tried writing and finishing tunes while in the studio, but for us it has proven to be less productive that way.

How much of a role did the studio play in shaping the new album?

Woody: This recording session at Echo Mountain in Asheville, N.C. was great for us. The studio was killer and it was the first time we have recorded close to home (except for the record we did with Steve Martin, which was also done at Echo Mountain). Recording close to home gave us ease in the studio and the ability to go to our own homes each night, which made each day new and fresh. In the past, we have gone to Nashville and all stayed together in a rental house or a hotel. We are all great friends, but having a little space during intense recording sessions is healthy for any group.

What kinds of commonalities would you say connect Nobody Knows You to your previous work?

Woody: Well, it is bluegrass music with the same band we have had for the past 8 years. And again, all but one of the tunes were written within the band. Also, we had the pleasure of working with Gary Paczosa and Brandon Bell as the engineers. Gary and Brandon engineered Rare Bird Alert.

I think this record is an obvious step for us if you were to go back and listen to all of our records in order. To me, Nobody Knows You has the most depth from start to finish, and I believe that it features our best songwriting to date.

What would you say sets Nobody Knows You apart the most? What does it significantly add to the SCR discography, personally for you?

Woody: Although it is a bluegrass album, and we are very proud to be a bluegrass band, there are elements of pop, honky-tonk, jazz and rock and roll all kind of mixed into the album. The variety of the record will hopefully enable us to reach a larger audience of music fans, and not limit it to only bluegrass fans. Compared to our previous discography, I'd say that this record has the best chance to have a broad appeal.

How have you grown yourself musically, creatively, and personally over the years from playing in the Steep Canyon Rangers?

Woody: My musical career has entirely been the Steep Canyon Rangers. We started together in college and have stayed the course. Along with learning the music and how to play and perform it, I have also learned a great deal about the business and the touring needed for a group like ours.

What are some of your other favorite passions in addition to playing music?

Woody: It is is a funny thing, because I love to play in this group and to travel the country from show to show. But, I also love being home and love my family and living in a small mountain community. So over the years we have developed a fairly sustainable "road vs. home" schedule.

When I am home I spend lots of time in the local trout streams of western North Carolina. I have been an avid fly fisherman since I was young and it gives me time to let the burdens and challenges of life go and just "be" in the water. Time stands still for me when I am in the river. I really enjoy taking others as well. Guiding fly fishing trips was a job of mine in late high school and into college, only to be trumped by the bluegrass band. When we're on the road, we often take time to fish local streams and rivers. We are lucky to have been to some wonderful areas for music and fishing combined.  

Can you discuss the band's plans for the rest of the year? 

Woody: We are very excited about the record release on the 10th of this month. We plan to tour very hard this year to support the album. Also, Steve Martin has hired us for close to 50 shows this summer. So things are gearing up to be quite busy! But, in this line of work you want to be busy!

Here's some links to share with your readers who may want to learn more:

Steep Canyon Rangers LLC
Mountain Song Festival
The Open Fly (fly fishing supplies)

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