Brevard’s Steep Canyon Rangers were already considered a top-notch bluegrass band before hooking up with comedian-turned-banjo-picker Steve Martin.
But touring and recording with Martin has exposed the group to a broader audience. In February, the band followed up a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy win for 2012’s “Nobody Knows You” by recording at Levon Helm’s Woodstock, N.Y., studio with producer Larry Campbell.
After a year touring with Martin and Edie Brickel as well as on their own, SCR returns to Neighborhood Theatre on Saturday. The Observer recently spoke to guitarist Woody Platt about the new “Tell the Ones I Love” album, working with Martin, and the mainstreaming of acoustic music.
Q. How did you end up at Levon Helm’s studio?
A We played the Midnight Ramble (all-star jam concerts) about six months before he died (in April 2012). He invited us to come back and record a record. He said the room would be great for bluegrass and they’d never done a bluegrass record in there. It’s a timber frame barn with tall ceilings, beautiful wood and a huge fireplace tucked away in the woods.
Q. You worked with his producer as well?
A Larry spent a decade with Bob Dylan as his band leader and did the same thing with Levon the last 10 years. He produced both of Levon’s Grammy-winning records. He was very familiar with that studio and didn’t come from a bluegrass background, which was cool for us. We’ve done so many records with bluegrass producers and engineers.
Q. How was the experience different?
A We used drums. We recorded it more in a live setting with a circle by a fire with some simple baffle separation. It was a live approach, as opposed to a more isolated setting with more overdub work, to capture the sound of the barn and feel of the songs.
Q. Do you feel a connection with the folk-rock boom?
A We noticed that this year when we were at the Grammys. Mumford, the Lumineers and the Avetts feature similar instruments. Mumford won top albums in all albums. There’s an interesting connection between our niche genre and the top pop awards. It’s fueling the fire for what we’re doing. There’s some trickle-down if someone falls in love with the banjo because of somebody in Mumford and Sons. They could become fans of ours or other bluegrass bands.
Q. Where do you fall in regard to traditionalism?
A There’s old-guard traditional bluegrass and the progressive, open-minded, let’s-push-the-boundaries-of-this-music (mentality). We kind of fall into both categories. We are a traditional bluegrass band for the most part. We toured and played the traditional circuit, and we loved that. We’re totally plugged into that world, and at the same time, we’re enjoying being more progressive and taking it to different venues. It’s an interesting genre where there’s the traditionalists and progressives and how that works to preserve the traditional side of it, and at the same time grow and broaden the genre.
Q. What’s next?
A More of the same. Next year we’ll tour just us and do shows with Steve and Edie. We’ll probably record a record with Steve next year.
Q. Has working with him helped to elevate the band?
A Absolutely. We started touring these large venues and playing a lot of late-night television shows. He’s just helped expose us to a larger audience. At the same time, he’d kind of been an ambassador for the banjo being able to take it to (David) Letterman, (Jimmy) Fallon, Jay Leno. It’s interesting for us to be part of that – broadening the audience for bluegrass. … We’ve been treated fairly when we’re out with Steve, so we can afford to do things when we’re on our own. (But) when we’re touring with him, we’re not considered his backup band. It’s considered the Steep Canyon Rangers.
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