"Bluegrass music's roots run deep throughout Appalachia and particularly North Carolina." So writes Mike Bub, until this past summer the longtime bassist in the Del McCoury Band, in the liner notes of the Steep Canyon Rangers' new One Dime at a Time, a record that Bub produced. The Rangers are certainly, um, well-steeped in North Carolina-ness. The band's core trio--lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjo player/baritone vocalist Graham Sharp and bassist Charles Humphrey III--started playing together as students at UNC-Chapel Hill in the late '90s, and Platt's hometown buddy, Mike Guggino, was always around with mandolin in hand. That pair hails from Brevard in the western part of the state, while Sharp is from Greensboro and Humphrey from Greenville, offering near coast-to-coast coverage. (Fiddle player Nicky Sanders, a San Francisco native and a Berklee Music School grad, is the Rangers' geographical ringer.)
But when it came time to record their third album, the Steep Canyon Rangers turned to a neighbor, heading to Tennessee for the opportunity to record with Bub in Nashville. They trusted him to locate the right room and the right engineer (David Ferguson, who worked with Johnny Cash among many others), and they showed up ready to play. "Right now, the musicians that we are and the type of group we are, the best way to capture what we do is to just do it live," Platt explains. "Get in a circle and get good microphones on everybody and just play the songs, you know." In that spirit of get in, get it down and get out, they recorded One Dime at a Time in a brisk four days.
The album is heavy on originals--nine of the 12 songs, in fact, with the majority written by Sharp--reflecting the group's desire to develop their own style by leaning on their own tunes. "There's a lot of bluegrass standard material that lots of people play," says Platt. "We tend to play our own stuff. And that keeps everybody interested, the listener and the performer."
The album does include three cover songs, which duck in and out of the originals to showcase the band's versatility. The title track was first recorded by Sparta, N.C. native Del Reeves, best known for "Girl on the Billboard" and the Son Volt-covered "Looking at the World Through a Windshield," and the Rangers give it a nifty swing without losing the song's tears-in-your-beer identity. They also tackle "Evangeline," continuing a recent run of bluegrass Band covers, including the Dylan-penned, Band-recorded "I Shall Be Released" from fellow Carolinians Chatham County Line and the Gibson Brothers' "Ophelia." Most striking is the gospel number "I Can't Sit Down," presented a cappella with Guggino on lead vocal and Sanders, Platt and Sharp on tenor, baritone and bass vocal respectively.
"J.D. Crowe did it a lot in the '70s," offers Platt, referring to the arranging of non-bluegrass songs for a bluegrass presentation. "He brought in songs from the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Over the years, bands have brought songs into bluegrass that end up staying in bluegrass. They almost become standard."
Still, originals are what the Steep Canyon Rangers intend to hang their hats on. Says Platt with a chuckle, "I'm hoping that some of our songs end up being standards."
The Rangers play Cat's Cradle Saturday, Nov. 12. Tickets are $10. Big Fat Gap opens.