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Steep Canyon Rangers' Woody Platt talks about leaving the band

Asheville Citizen Times

Published April 29, 2022 by John Boyle

BREVARD - All musicians try to find that perfect balance between the call of the tour bus and the yearning to be with family.

Woody Platt, guitarist, singer and founding member of popular bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers, decided in April to step on the scale a bit, in favor of the family side. After 23 years, a Grammy award and a fruitful collaboration with movie star and banjo player Steve Martin, Platt has decided to leave the band.

“It’s been an incredibly wonderful 23 years with Steep Canyon Rangers,” Platt, 44, said in an interview with the Citizen Times. “I’ve been there since the very beginning when the first notes were played, and I don’t regret a moment of it.”

To be clear, Platt plans to continue playing with the Rangers for several more months, including a free show at 6 p.m. May 7 in Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville.

A Brevard native, Platt and his bandmates formed Steep Canyon Rangers while students at UNC Chapel Hill in the 1990s, never dreaming of the heights they'd hit.

"I’m so proud of what we were able to accomplish. So proud,” Platt said. “It’ll be the highlight of my life, running the roads with those guys, and going from just knowing a few songs to play, to where we are now.”

Where they are now is basking in national prominence as one of the finest bluegrass bands in the country, with 13 studio albums and three collaborative records with Martin, not to mention one Grammy and three nominations. Also members of the Carolina Music Hall of Fame, the Rangers' style includes hints of rock 'n' roll and country.

In a brief statement released through Platt, Martin said, "I’m so proud to be associated with the Rangers. I’m looking forward to the directions that both Woody and the band are taking themselves."

Platt is the second founding member to leave in recent years. In 2017, bassist Charles Humphrey III parted ways with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

'It just got a little harder to leave every time'

With the band's success came a touring schedule that keeps them on the road 100-110 days a years.

Platt lives in Brevard with his wife, musician Shannon Whitworth, and their son, Rivers, 6. While Platt plans to continue playing music, with Whitworth and others, he craved more time at home.

“I’ve got one child, and I love my little corner of Western North Carolina where I live, and it just got a little harder to leave every time,” Platt said. “Every time pulls on my heart a little more each time.”

Don't get him wrong. Platt says all the members of the Steep Canyon Rangers — Graham Sharp (banjo), Mike Guggino (mandolin), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), Mike Ashworth (bass) and Barrett Smith (guitar) — have made huge sacrifices for the band. But he says touring and making records requires everyone to be "100% into it – into the pace and the travel."

“I think in order for a band to be true to what they are and to be successful — and to put on a show and tell the stories every night — you’ve got to be as close to on the same page as is humanly possible to be a great band,” Platt said. “And we were. I’ve bragged so many years about how we were all able to keep our arrows pointed at the same target.”

Sharp, the banjo player and a member of the Rangers since Chapel Hill days, said Platt leaves with no acrimony and the best wishes of all the other members. While the band is tight-knit and remain friends on and off stage, Sharp acknowledged Platt plays a huge role in the band — and not just because he's over 6 feet tall and a dominating physical presence.

“He’s always sort of been the forward-facing part of the band,” Sharp said. “People kind of just naturally associate the guitar player and the guy who sings most of the songs as sort of the front man of the band."

Platt also handled a lot of business for the band.

As a songwriter, Sharp said he would often take songs and song ideas to Platt, and they'd finish working them out.

“So he’s sort of been my creative right hand the whole time,” Sharp said.

From altar boys to the big time

Mike Guggino, the mandolin player in the band, grew up with Platt in Brevard. They met in early elementary school and attended Catholic church together.

"We were altar boys, Woody and I, from an early age,” Guggino said with a laugh.

Guggino went to UNC Asheville, but he’s been in the band since it started, driving down to play shows in Chapel Hill. As Platt describes it, they started in "back rooms at parties, and then maybe a gig or two at open mic nights."

Platt and Guggino became tighter in middle and high school, playing sports together and then realizing a mutual love of music.

Platt broke it to the band a few weeks ago that he would be leaving. While it came as a shock, Guggino said the pandemic has kind of reset the world, and "I think a lot of people aren’t going to go back to doing whatever they were doing and the way they were doing it.”

"I could understand him not wanting to be on the road after spending two years at home like that,” Guggino said. “It made sense, but it was shocking at the same time because we’d just always done this together since we were in college. Our whole adult lives we’ve been in a band together, so it was shocking in that way.”

Platt, Guggino and Sharp all stress that there's zero band drama in Platt's departure.

“We love him and always will," Guggino said. "We’ll still make music with him. He still lives around here, and we’ll still hang out and be friends.”

Sharp said everyone, at some point in their lives, has taken a job just to get by, toiling away at the kind of passionless work you can do half-heartedly and still make a living. That doesn't work in music.

Sharp said they all really appreciate Platt being so honest with them, sharing his need to step back a bit. They all know the band requires full commitment, that it's not like other jobs you can phone in.

“I don’t think music falls into that category,” Sharp said. “Once your mind and your heart is somewhere else, I think there’s only one way to go. And I know how much Woody’s heart is into music and how much his heart has always been a big part of our music. I know it had to take a strong feeling for him to feel pulled toward home.”

'You can't replace a personality'

For now, the band will enjoy the heck out of the remaining shows with Platt. They know they can't replace Platt's talent, personality and camaraderie.

"I think the first thing we’re doing is rather than just trying to take somebody and plug them into a Woody-sized hole in the middle of band, everybody’s first instinct has been to gather the five of us and sort of rewrite the DNA and then see where we are,” Sharp said. “There’s a lot of talent in the band we haven’t needed to delve into. I think we’re at a point of discovery right now and seeing what other strengths can we draw on.”

Guggino said the world if full of talented guitar players and singers.

"But our intention is not to try to replace Woody with someone who sounds and looks and sings like Woody," he said. “We would want to find someone who would fit in with our personalities, both on and off stage. I think that’s possible, but we also want to take our time and not rush into something like that.”

Guggino noted that among the five members who'll remain in the band, they've got some great singers, songwriters and musicians.

"We're just going to kind of work with that and see what we’ve got and what we need," Guggino said. "We might not need anything.”

Fishing, lots of music, in Platt's future

Platt has not set a firm date for his departure, other than to say "it's definitely going to be a few months." He stressed that he's not burned out and is particularly looking forward to the free show in Asheville, called the Free for All concert.

"I still love every minute that we’re on the stage together,” Platt said April 27. “I love it. We just played in Austin last week, and I was truly having an incredible time.”

But he is looking forward to more time with his family — and the fish. Platt is an incurable trout fisherman, and he's been guiding since he was 18. His property in Transylvania includes some stream frontage, and he says he stepped up the fly fishing "pretty heavily during COVID."

“I expect to do some in the future, but probably never at the pace I did when I was younger,” Platt said of guiding. “I just enjoy it so much and it brings me so much joy. I just anticipate a little bit of guiding in the future.”

Guggino said Platt is well-known for his fishing bug, routinely lining up quick guided trips while they were on tour.

"He does quite a bit of fishing – I can’t imagine how he could do much more than he’s already doing,” Guggino said with a laugh.

Clearly, Platt finds joy in cold mountain streams, but also in catchy mountain music, and he has no plans to give up the guitar and singing.

“I’m never going to play at the volume I have been – I think that’s a given,” Platt said. “But I would love to play – I’d like to play with members of the Rangers, if they’d have me occasionally, not in the band but something just for fun. I’d like to play locally, and I’d like to continue to record.”

He's excited about what calls a "sort of a la carte experience" – whether it's playing with his wife, jamming with old friends or recording.

"I don’t think it’d be smart to put this much time into it and just hang it up," Platt said. "I see it playing into who I am in my future somehow.”

He's also got abundant faith that his bandmates will continue killing it. The Rangers are working on another single, and they're touring this spring and summer.

"They are so immensely talented, and that’s been the reason for our success – what each one of them can do individually,” Platt said. “They’re just so talented. I think there’s more than enough firepower there to continue to rock ’n’ roll.”


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