The last time the Steep Canyon Rangers were in Baton Rouge, they took second billing behind Steve Martin, the actor-comedian creating a third career as a banjo player. Six years later, they’re back at Manship Theatre but this time on their own.
The six-member band, which plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Manship, had already achieved recognition in bluegrass before it began a collaboration with Martin in 2009. But hanging around a famous personality has its benefits.
“For us, working with Steve really increased our fan base,” said guitarist Woody Platt, one of the band’s original three members. “If you ever saw the show with us, he featured us a lot. It wasn’t like we were his backup band in the shadows. It was Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, and we got featured so much individually, collectively, and we were part of the jokes, so people got to know us."
Those new fans have come to appreciate a group that respects the roots of bluegrass but isn’t afraid to evolve the genre. The band itself has experienced considerable evolution.
Platt, Graham Sharp (banjo) and Charles R. Humphrey III (upright bass) started the group in 2000 while students at the University of North Carolina. None was a music major or even played much their first two years, and they didn’t play together until the end of their junior year. But they found each other, and it turned into something.
“I like to call it a hobby gone wild,” Platt said. “We were having so much fun playing when we graduated from college that we just looked at each other and were like, ‘Let’s make a run at this.’
"Our friendship predates the band. It predates the music, and I think that’s part of the secret to our success.”
Mike Guggino (mandolin) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) rounded out the band by 2004, and the group went on to win Emerging Artist of the Year and Entertainers of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association and a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album.
The band is known for its creative instrumentation and harmonies, two necessary ingredients for a good bluegrass song. However, in 2013, the Rangers added a component not always a part of the genre — percussion. While touring with Martin and Edie Brickell, the band made a record that needed a drummer. Though their producer suggested someone based in Los Angeles, the band countered with another North Carolinian, Michael Ashworth, who uses a cajón drum kit.
Platt notes that a number of bluegrass greats of the past — Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin — used percussion at least sometime. As part of a new generation of bluegrass musicians, the Steep Canyon Rangers are putting their own influence on the genre.
“We weren’t driving around listening to Flatt and Scruggs when we were in high school or middle school,” Platt said. “Our families weren’t playing bluegrass. So, we come from a diverse collection of musical backgrounds, so this is really working for us."
"We’ve maintained our bluegrass roots and maintained our fans within the bluegrass community, but we’ve been able to stretch it out a little bit and play the songs we want to play.”
Platt said he also enjoys the intimacy of the Manship Theatre.
“It was a wonderful, intimate theatre, and we’ve always wanted to come back,” he said. “It’s something about the direct connection you have with audiences and how you know that everybody is there to listen and watch you perform, and they all have really good sight lines and can hear well.
“I think it’s a more intense — in a good way — environment to perform in. … You really have to have your show dialed in because in between songs there’s dead air, so it gives you a moment to really connect with your audience. You can speak to them, and they can actually hear you. That’s what’s exciting and fun about smaller venues. … It kind of raises the bar of the performances.”
Steep Canyon Rangers
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge
Cost: $50 plus fees