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In Focus: Steep Canyon Rangers

September 12, 2023 2:36 pm GMT

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For nearly a quarter century, Steep Canyon Rangers have been at the center of North Carolina’s behemoth roots music scene.

It all started in the late 1990s when the Grammy and IBMA Award-winning band formed at the University of North Carolina. It’s ballooned in the years since thanks to the group’s relentless touring schedule and a bevy of appearances with actor Steve Martin that propelled them in front of a national audience.

With their latest album Morning Shift, the group’s core — Graham Sharp on banjo, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Ashworth on drums and Barrett Smith on bass — welcomes yet another voice into the fold with Aaron Burdett, who steps in to fill the void left by founding member and frontman Woody Platt following his departure in early 2022. A native of nearby Saluda, Burdett is an accomplished songwriter in his own right that brings a flavor that’s as rootsy as it is bluesy to songs like ‘Deep End’, ‘Above My Burdens’ and ‘Alabama Calling’.

According to Smith, Burdett was referred to the band by Martin Anderson, a close friend who serves as music director and DJ for Spindale, NC-based radio station WNCW.

“We auditioned some people, but that wasn’t really the case with Aaron,” Smith tells Holler. “Graham just sent him some songs to record and send back. When he did, we all felt this immediate connection to the way he interpreted them. Two weeks later he was flying across the country to play with us, kicking off a long courting process that further confirmed he was the right fit.”

Although Burdett is the group’s newest member, he’s not the only new face to join the fray in recent years. In 2018, Smith, who was college neighbors with Sharp, joined in place of Charles Humphrey III following years of collaboration that included occasional fill-in gigs, in addition to a side project with Guggino and an album recorded with Platt’s wife, Shannon Whitworth. Despite being classically trained Smith fell right in with the group, making it a no-brainer to have him make the leap into the band full-time.

“I was always around and became one of the people the band was collectively closest to,” says Smith. “When they needed a bass player they could always call me in a pinch to fill in, which eventually led to me becoming a member of the band.”

Calling from his Asheville home during a break in tour, Smith spoke with Holler about everything from how his experience joining the band compares to Burdett’s, the significance of Chapel Hill to the group and what went into the new album.

Even though you’ve been in cahoots with the band for years, what was it like moving from a fill-in to a full-time member in 2018?

Because the band has been together so long it has its own language and way of doing things. The songs themselves have developed very organically through countless live performances in such a way that it's not so straightforward. They may accidentally do something different one night that we run with or change a chord along the way because they don’t like how it sounds, which can make each song really complex. Coming in and learning these songs fresh is a huge mental exercise because the nuances that they’re so used to can be overwhelming.

With that frame of reference, it’s been funny watching Aaron go through the same process because he’s pulling out his hair every now and then wondering when we’re going to do a simple song. The group is so used to the organic development of its songs that we tend to lose sight of their complexity, which I’ve come to find is one of the really cool things about this band. The culture of the band, the songwriting, the way we tour, everything. They weren’t conscious decisions, it’s just the way things naturally fell into place. That’s the benefit of having a band that’s been around so long and has such great people in it.

What does Aaron bring to the Steep Canyon Rangers that the band hasn’t had before? Not that Woody was lacking in any way, but I’m always curious to hear about people’s individual traits and how that impacts the band dynamic.

It’s funny, because from our perspective we weren’t thinking in terms of what Woody’s strengths and weaknesses were and how Aaron works into that, but rather in a way of Woody’s gone, what do our strengths and weaknesses with him gone look like? It was a big hit, nobody wanted Woody to leave. It was just his time to step away, and we’ve all been very supportive of that. What started out as a very traditional bluegrass band slowly evolved into a group with drums and increasingly vulnerable lyrics, so when Woody left it was an opportunity to find another raw singer that reflects where we’re currently at with our lyrics and sound.

So Aaron comes in and is immediately a very strong and confident singer. As soon as we heard his versions of our songs we knew his was the voice we wanted to add to this band. We were trying out a bunch of other people at the time, but as soon as I heard Aaron I just knew. He’s got the vocal delivery, he can play the guitar. He’s checked off all the boxes and it feels like he’s been with us forever at this point. We really feel like the ceiling of our emotional ability to touch people has risen considerably with Aaron, Graham and I all singing. It’s just a different delivery altogether, and we’re reveling in it right now.

In the past Graham has been the group’s main songwriter, but now Aaron is doing some of that as well. What did that process look like for the band with this album?

Woody and Charles, who I replaced, both wrote a bit, but since I’ve been with them most of that has fallen on Graham. When Woody left one of the things we discussed was whether we wanted to find somebody else who writes, and the general consensus was that it was a good idea. Graham hasn’t been territorial about it at all, in fact, he’s actually been excited to have another writer to share the load with and bring some new stuff to the table.

Aaron writes a ton and during our initial conversations said as much, almost hinting that it might be hard for him to be in this band without also writing for it. Not to say that’d be a dealbreaker, but I can see how it’d be hard to silence his writing voice, especially being part of a band that’s such a song making machine. Even though Graham used to be the primary writer, he’d be the first to tell you that yes, he writes the songs, but he’s also leaning on the band to process them and be part of the songwriting process.

He’ll often sit down with me, Mike Ashworth and others to send the song through a filter member by member until we’re all in the room playing it together. Sometimes those ideas are fully realized when they come to us, but more often than not they aren’t. When that happens Graham is always very generous in the songwriting credits.

That being said, with Aaron coming in as a writer, he’s not only joining a band, but a real song processing machine. He’ll bring in one of his songs and we’ll just take it and run with it, dissecting this and that because we’re so used to doing it that way with Graham. It’s been an adventure for all of us getting into the rhythm of doing that with another writer in the band.

You’re credited as a songwriter on ‘Hominy Valley’. Tell me about your contributions to the song and how it came to be.

That’s a Graham song through and through, but I did spend a lot of time with him processing, re-writing lyrics and organizing instrumental arrangements enough to warrant giving me a co-writing credit. The song itself is about the neighborhood in Asheville where Graham and I live, which is probably why he leaned on me a bit more than others.

It’s not just a strange history of right where we are, but when you peel back a layer, also a commentary on the rapid growth and changes taking place in Asheville right now. We’re both right in the middle of it with a big development going up in our neighborhood and discussions of who has ownership and rights to the land. We just drove by it the other day and framing was going up. It’s surreal to see it all happening now at the same time we’re going around and singing the song on stage.

The same could be said about the Indigenous tribes that used to frequent the region before being displaced and the land colonized and gentrified. It’s a really interesting narrative to follow, both in that regard and to what’s happening in Hominy Valley right now.

Absolutely. It’s a really deep concept that Graham brought to the table. We’re basically railing against these people coming in and taking our land, so it’s really interesting with Graham also taking it back to the reality that this land belonged to the Indigenous tribes inhabiting it long before colonists set foot there. Meanwhile, there’s a tree here that’s been working on a different timeline. It’s seen it all, from the Cherokee to the colonists to what’s going on now.

The group couldn’t have picked a more appropriate cover to include on the record than Robbie Fulks’ ‘Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals’, given its ties to Chapel Hill. What does the college town mean to you and the band?

The band wouldn’t exist without that town, no question about it. That’s where we all first met. My first memory of Graham is running into him at a Halloween party where I was dressed as Luke Duke and he had dressed as Bo Duke [from The Dukes Of Hazzard]. Other than just being in the same place at the same time, it was just a very romantic and magical time to be in Chapel Hill. There was a lot of exciting music going on and inspiring people to be around, and we got to experience all of that together.

Even though Graham and I are the only current members who went to school there, Chapel Hill will always be near and dear to the band. I just get a big, warm feeling when I think about that place. I’m very grateful for it being a part of my life and for getting to be part of a band that honors how special that time was.

That’s the seed that this all grew from, so it’s really cool that Darrell Scott [who produced the record] intuitively knew of its significance to us and how meaningful this song would be. He really wanted to have a cover and an instrumental on the album, which were both things that we initially weren’t planning on. We only did those two things because he suggested them. We put our trust in him and he was right, because ‘Carolina Gals’ is now a song we play during our live shows almost every night.

Morning Shift was released on Sept. 8, the same day the band played its own Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, NC. What did it mean to y’all to celebrate its release there with your family and friends?

That’s always a big homecoming for us. Because of that we marked it as a great spot to line up the album’s release with. It’s our way of honoring them. They’re some of our biggest fans and closest friends, so we knew they’d appreciate it. We play a bunch of festivals that are all special in their own way, so it’s nice to now have two we can call our own between it and BirdFest [Pinewood, SC].

Steep Canyon Rangers’ Morning Shift is out now via Yep Roc Records.

Written by Matt Wickstrom
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