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Aaron Burdett Steeps In, Replacing Platt In The Steep Canyon Rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers 2022
The new Steep Canyon Rangers, from L: Nicky Sanders, Mike Ashworth, Mike Guggino, Graham Sharp, Barrett Smith and new member Aaron Burdett.

Western North Carolina bluegrass and roots band theSteep Canyon Rangers has filled the vacancy left by the recent departure of founding member Woody Platt with songwriter/guitarist Aaron Burdett of Saluda, NC. Platt surprised the band and the Americana world in April when he announced he’d be stepping away after 23 years. The Rangers have been touring with Burdett on a trial basis for a number of weeks and are announcing today that he’s officially a member.

“It feels really good and natural,” Burdett tells WMOT. “We’ve taken some time to test out the waters to see how they feel and how I feel and how our families feel - and how the music feels. And it seemed to be working out.”

Founding banjo player, singer and songwriter Graham Sharp says the band considered a range of options, including trimming to a five-piece after Platt’s departure, because either way it would be the biggest upheaval in their long, Grammy-winning career. “We had this thing with Woody where we were all cut from the same cloth and had almost identical musical DNA because we learned everything together. It was almost this bulletproof sort of unity,” Sharp says. “So I think had it been ten years ago, we might have questioned going forward without Woody. But we were able to first solidify that this is still a thing. And now to bring in somebody (Burdett) who is their own fully formed badass artist and sort of graft these two things together, it feels really powerful - more than any of us could have hoped for.”

Burdett, whom WMOT profiled last August, has played acoustic and electric Americana under his own name for the last 15 years, releasing eight albums, recently on Asheville’s Organic Records. He’s a past winner of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest and one of the region’s most respected singer-songwriters, even if his name hasn’t spread far and wide. Sharp says the Rangers quietly reached out to some artists they knew and solicited three-song guitar/vocal audition recordings. Then somewhat late in the process, bass player Barrett Smith solicited the opinion of Martin Anderson, music director and DJ at roots radio stationWNCW, who suggested they look at Burdett.

“He sent in that demo with the same three songs and to a man, it was goosebumps. Really exceptional,” Sharp said of Burdett’s audition. “He can do all the moves that are impressive but he doesn’t do them in a showy way. Everything comes from a very real emotion - not forced at all. It feels so honest and that’s what we value most of all.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers are one of the most successful modern bluegrass bands of the 2000s. They formed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the turn of the millennium, inspired by a new wave of bluegrass that included Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury. In 2001, they won the band contest at Rockygrass in Colorado. In 2005, soon after adding current fiddle player Nicky Sanders, they were named Emerging Artist of the Year at the IBMA Awards. And in 2009, the band forged a high profile partnership with actor, comic and banjo player Steve Martin, leading to three collaborative albums and numerous tours. In fact just a few weeks after being invited on his shakedown run with the band, Burdett found himself on stage at the Hollywood Bowl playing multiple nights with Steve Martin to thousands. Woody Platt’s departure was amicable; he said he was weary of the road life and wanted to be at home with his family. Platt’s wife is Americana artist Shannon Whitworth.

“Something that helped me is they were not looking for a Woody replacement,” Burdett says. “It makes me feel good that what they want is me and what I do - the songwriting, the singing and the collaboration. They’ve been really warm and welcoming and very supportive.”

WMOT caught up with the Steep Canyon Rangers in 2020 on The String. The band, which also include founding mandolinist Mike Guggino and percussionist/harmony vocalist Mike Ashworth, have a busy fall of touring with plans to record a new album with Burdett this winter. A show at 3rd & Lindsley is in the works for December.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org