Many musical acts have gotten their start at UNC, but few have won a Grammy James Taylor has, maybe others. The men of the Steep Canyon Rangers, however, are proud to have that distinction.
The band has deep roots in Chapel Hill: its three original members — Woody Platt, Graham Sharp and Charles Humphrey — all met their freshman year at UNC. When they officially started playing together around 1999, the support from their friends and the success of their shows helped them gain the confidence to pursue a career in music.
“(At first), it wasn’t even really a goal of ours to be a full-time band — it was just pure fun,” Platt said. “When we graduated, we decided to take a shot at it.”
After graduation and the addition of mandolin player Mike Guggino, the men moved to Asheville and started playing shows throughout North Carolina. A representative from Rebel Records, a label from Charlottesville, Va., saw the band perform at The Carrboro ArtsCenter and offered the group a record deal.
Sometime after releasing a few albums, the guys heard that comic and banjo player Steve Martin was in Brevard, where Platt and Guggino are both from, and was looking for people to play with. After about two months, they played more shows with Martin and eventually were asked to go on a world tour with him.
“When you’re a band, you’re looking for a break, and that was the break that we got,” Platt said.
When it comes to playing with Martin, Platt said it doesn’t feel like being in a backup band — it feels more like having a different band with a new member.
“He is the ultimate entertainer,” Platt said. “He’s very generous with us, and we’re very lucky.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers released a Grammy-nominated album, Rare Bird Alert, with Martin in 2011. But the band’s biggest moment was when its own record, Nobody Knows You, won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
“I think when they called our name, everybody in our whole row didn’t really move,” Platt said. “It was funny because we didn’t expect to win, so we sat about 300 yards from the stage, in the way back.”
The band, now comprised of six members, released its eighth studio album, Tell the Ones I Love, in September. This week, the Steep Canyon Rangers will return to play a show at Cat’s Cradle with another UNC-rooted band, Mipso.
Among those looking forward to the show is bluegrass musician and teacher Joe Snipes, who taught Sharp and Platt how to play guitar and banjo, respectively. Snipes has taught many musicians, but he said the men of the Steep Canyon Rangers are some of the few who valued collective success over individual achievement.
“Those boys have done the best and I’m more proud of them than anybody else,” said Snipes. “They really stuck together and achieved their goal, and they went to the top.”
Nathan Fiore, a UNC sophomore and longtime bluegrass fan, said he is excited to see the band live for the first time.
“I feel like it will showcase their talent more and will be an overall better example of how talented they are as musicians,” Fiore said.
The members of the Steep Canyon Rangers are excited to play a familiar venue with a new band.
“We have not played with Mipso, and we’re excited about that in a lot of ways,” Platt said. “I just think it’s cool that it’s kind of the same path that we took 10 years ago.”
Platt said they play a Chapel Hill show once a year and are looking forward to coming back.
“We love Chapel Hill so much,” said Platt. “We’re so proud to have been a part of the University and to have started our band there.”
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