When Woody Platt comes to Charleston, he’ll enjoy a rare delight on the road: He’ll have his wife with him. Platt, the guitarist and vocalist for renowned North Carolina bluegrass act Steep Canyon Rangers, is married to Shannon Whitworth, who shares the bill with the Rangers for their Aug. 22 Charleston Music Hall show.
What’s life like in a house with two musicians? “I’ll tell you what it’s like: I got home from Canada yesterday, and she just drove off to Colorado about 15 minutes ago,” Platt says. “So that’s the hard part about it. The good part is we understand each other’s careers and are able to support each other in what we’re doing.”
Across a dozen years and eight albums, the Steep Canyon Rangers have built a formidable career playing straight-ahead bluegrass. Platt, bassist Charles Humphrey, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, and banjoist Graham Sharp have successfully kept the Flatt and Scruggs faith alive, rarely playing anything that approaches newgrass or fusion. When they play bluegrass, they play traditional, gather-round-the-microphone material with whip-fast solos and simple but gorgeous vocal harmonies.
The last time the Steep Canyon Rangers came to Charleston, it was as part of a collaborative act with comedian-musician Steve Martin and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Platt says the partnership with Martin, which yielded a Grammy nomination (for the 2011 album Rare Bird Alert) and an invitation to play on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building, started “randomly at a dinner party” near the Rangers’ home in Brevard, N.C. They kept in touch, and later Martin told Platt he’d be in town for the Mountain Song Festival, a Boys and Girls Club fundraiser that Platt founded eight years ago at the suggestion of his mother. Martin said he wanted to join the band onstage.
“Honestly, I didn’t know a lot about it. I mean, I think we were game for the opportunity just because of his celebrity,” Platt says. “But as we got to know him and work with him a little bit, it became very clear that he was a serious, focused musician and was really in this not just to have fun but to make good music and have a successful touring act.”
Platt credits Martin for expanding the band’s repertoire — they now have three separate catalogs of Rangers, Martin, and Brickell material to play — and for lending the exposure that helped the band land a 2013 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for their 2012 recording Nobody Knows You. The album, which doesn’t include any Martin material, features virtuosic playing (especially on the instrumental “Knob Creek”) and witty, honest songwriting. A standout track, the Humphrey-penned “Natural Disaster,” includes the chorus, “Love is a natural disaster/ Never get what I’m after,” and the ringer line, “What can I do against an act of God?”
“I like the melody of the song, the feel of the song, and it’s got a lyrical hook that you can hum along and remember,” Platt says.
At the concert, expect to hear some new material from the band’s upcoming album Tell the Ones I Love, due out Sept. 10. Recorded at Echo Mountain studio in Asheville, N.C., with the help of famed producer Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm), it breaks at least one unwritten rule of bluegrass: It’s got drums, courtesy of Brevard local Jeff Sipe. “We’re progressing in certain ways,” Platt says. “It’s not quite newgrass, but it’s not as traditional as it once was.”