North Carolina always has had a reputation for birthing great bluegrass bands. But it’s remarkable what Steep Canyon Rangers have done musically over the nearly 18 years they’ve been performing, especially for an outfit created inside a dorm room at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The band has averaged nearly one album release per year since forming, juggling the creation of new music for themselves alongside their duties as the backing band for comedic actor Steve Martin’s side gig as an ambassador for the banjo. That has meant a never-ending cycle of days spent either on the road performing or in a studio recording.
That kind of grind can get to any artist. So perhaps the most surprising thing about founding member Charles Humphrey III’s announcement this past December that he was leaving the band was that the bassist is only the second full-time member to have ever left the group. Fiddler Lizzie Hamilton’s departure occurred more than a decade ago in 2003.
With such a recent – and sudden – shakeup in personnel, it would be normal for fans to wonder if the Rangers, who will be performing two nights this weekend at UNC’s Memorial Auditorium, have fully adjusted to Humphrey’s absence on stage. This will be one of the first performances the group has had since Humphrey’s exit. (Humphrey and his Songs From the Road Band just performed Jan. 5 at Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh.)
Lead vocalist Woody Platt said Humphrey’s decision wasn’t as much a shock to those inside the band as to those outside of it. Once you’ve been around someone nearly every day for almost 20 years, it becomes easy to sense a change in that person’s attitude.
“We are a band of brothers, and we all know each other very well from the years spent traveling the roads, so it wasn’t a surprise,” Platt said. “I honestly think it’s a very healthy situation for both Charles and (the band); you can begin to read someone’s energy after being around them for so long, so our immediate reaction to his (leaving) was, ‘That feels right, and the right thing for everyone.’ ”
“I respect Charles, and I know he respects us,” Platt said. “Things just change over time; he’s got other musical avenues that he’s interested in, so he just wanted to diversify some of his interests.”
As for Humphrey, he recently told The News & Observer before his Raleigh show: “I’m looking forward to blazing some new trails.”
The Rangers’ main interest at the moment is preparing for their two-night stand on their old stomping grounds of Memorial Auditorium. It’s a venue that Platt never would have dreamed of playing as a student, but one he can’t help but be audibly excited about.
“There’s a lot of things that you don’t expect when you start a band with a bunch of your friends, and you don’t suspect this level of success happening when you begin playing together as purely a fun hobby,” he said.
“Our first public gig was at Linda’s Bar & Grill,” Platt said, namedropping the venerable Franklin Street burger and wings joint, not a far walk from Memorial Hall.
“And if you had ever gone there at the time, you’d never think of it as a music venue. To go from there to now Memorial Hall? It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” he said. “As much as we love Chapel Hill, and our history of beginning the band there, it feels really surreal to be able to headline two nights at the largest venue in town. It’s an honor, and something we cherish and don’t take for granted.”
Of course, nothing has come easy for the Rangers in their careers, and even with the success they’ve gained among their peers within the world of the International Bluegrass Music Association, even a couple of hometown shows come with their own challenge.
The first night of the Rangers’ homecoming will have stiff competition for audience members’ attention just down the street. “Bluejam” standard-bearers Yonder Mountain String Band also take the stage Jan. 12 at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. On Jan. 18, fellow bluegrass superstars The Infamous Stringdusters take the stage at Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom. (It’s a return to the Triangle for the Stringdusters, who performed at the Wide Open Jam at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass this fall.)
The Rangers have encountered this test for fans’ loyalties on the road before, and Platt said he doesn’t see it changing anytime soon in today’s music environment.
“It’s rare that we go into a major market without finding another band playing the same night that could potentially split the (audience),” Platt said. “We just played in Atlanta a few months ago and found when we got there that there were 10 or 12 Americana acts playing in venues throughout town on the same night; it was incredible.”
But they don’t worry too much about competition. It just comes with the territory that your friends also will be performing that night – sometimes in the same town.
“We love what we’re doing, and we are having enough success to be proud of it and support our families well enough to justify what we’re doing,” the singer says with a laugh. “Of course you’re wanting to sell more tickets than them when they are in the same town. It’s never been easy, but there have to be an unprecedented number of bluegrass bands out there right now. I’m just proud to be in one of them that is doing well.”
Who: Steep Canyon Rangers
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 12 and 13
Where: Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill
Cost: $19 to $69. UNC students, faculty and staff are eligible for discounts.
Info: CarolinaPerformingArts.org or 919-843-3333
▪ Yonder Mountain String Band is celebrating two decades of hits with a 20th anniversary tour. The Southern Belles will also perform. Jan. 12, 8 p.m. Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro. $25, or $30 day of show. 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com/events
▪ Infamous Stringdusters bring their progressive bluegrass-meets-jam-rock music to the Haw River Ballroom with opening act Dangermuffin. Jan. 18, 8 p.m. 1711 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road, Saxapahaw. $22 to $24. hawriverballroom.com