The hollows and hills of North Carolina are as close to the epicenter of bluegrass music as you’ll find in America.
Early fathers of the musical style, such as Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, developed the traditional old-timey sound of bluegrass.
But though the members of Steep Canyon Rangers hail from the Tar Heel State, they look to the entire spectrum of bluegrass for inspiration.
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“There’s a wide description of what bluegrass is, and what it isn’t,” said Woody Platt, singer and guitarist for the band. “I think for us, the cool thing is that we don’t really care. We love the traditional bluegrass. But we also love these bands that are just using elements of bluegrass. We play it all, and it doesn’t bother me that music is progressing and changing.”
Throughout their 15-year career, the Steep Canyon Rangers has played small-town clubs, sprawling outdoor festivals and Carnegie Hall. The group served as the backing band for comedian Steve Martin’s bluegrass project — and will release an album with him later this year. They have won a Grammy for best bluegrass album.
The band will headline this year’s John Hartford Memorial Festival, where the biggest names in roots, American and bluegrass music gather from May 31 to June 3 at Bill Monroe Music Park south of Morgantown. The band will play the main stage at 10:30 p.m. June 2. Joining them will be mainstay names such as the Travelin’ McCourys and Jeff Austin, among nearly 50 performers over four days.
Named for Hartford, the adventurous and innovative musician who took bluegrass in new directions, the family-friendly event has been given the moniker “The Most Laid Back Festival in America.”
That suits the Steep Canyon Rangers just fine, Platt said.
“This festival seems like it has an open-minded approach to bluegrass music, much like John Hartford did,” he said. “(Hartford) was more progressive that anybody at his time, but he was also tied to traditional music. He was a big influence on our band.”
How did you get into bluegrass in the first place?
Platt: I grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina, and there was a lot of bluegrass around there. So I was kind of exposed to it early on, in community square dances and things like that. But I didn’t really take to it until hearing a Doc Watson record when I was in high school, and being really drawn to that.
How did Steep Canyon Rangers come together?
Platt: In college, I got connected with some guys who were good friends of mine — one was a banjo player, the other played upright bass. I don’t think originally it was about being a bluegrass band so much as playing music. But we had a banjo and upright bass, and coming from the region we come from, we just kind of naturally went there.
How did you develop your sound?
Platt: When we realized that bluegrass was where we wanted to be, we went way back to really study the early guys — Flatt & Scruggs, Thunder Road, Jimmy Martin, the early founders of bluegrass. We stayed there for a while, but since then, we’ve kind of branched back out and embraced all of our other influences.
When you went back into the traditional bluegrass, what did you find that made it seem so essential?
Platt: It’s truly American music. The instruments come from different places, but the sound that was created in 1946 by Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs was defining; it created a genre. It’s cool to trace something back to the beginning, and it being something you can relate to.
How did you try to balance traditional with modern when creating your sound?
Platt: None of us were farmers, none of us were moonshiners. When you’re covering somebody’s music, those songs that the early generation of bluegrass did, those are the songs they wrote. We decided that, while we needed to study that music, we needed to have our own songs. We wanted to be ourselves and relevant to our common life. We grew up in the time where there were so many different influences — ‘90s rock, the Grateful Dead, classic rock. So many different things that all went into our music.
What’s it like performing at an outdoor festival like this as opposed to a big theater?
Platt: All settings have their pros and cons. We love festivals. People can dance and be free in nature. There’s something to be said about performing outside to an audience that can sit, they can stand, people are coming and going. There’s a social element to it. As opposed to a theater, where you can hear a pin drop and you have to be incredibly precise. I like both scenarios, but if I had to pick a favorite, I’d say the festival.
John Hartford Memorial Festival
When: May 31 to June 3
Where: Bill Monroe 5163 SR 135 N., Morgantown
- Four-day passes: $120 through Sunday, $135 at the gate
- Single day passes in advance: $40 Thursday, $45 Friday, $50 Saturday
- Single day passes at the gate: $50 Thursday, $55 Friday, $60 Saturday
Steep Canyon Rangers, The Travelin’ McCourys, Jeff Austin Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Vince Herman & Friends, Jesse McReynolds, Molly Tuttle, Dead Winter Carpenters, Rumpke Mountain Boys, Run Boy Run, Pert Near Sandstone, Mountain Sprout, The Tillers, The Larry Keel Experience, Frank Lee & Allie Burbrink, and others.
Information and tickets: johnhartfordmemfest.com