Music of the Water: Woody Platt of Steep Canyon Rangers | By JP Grice and Eleanor Merrell
Born in the early twentieth century, bluegrass arrived at a moment when young Southerners were abandoning life in the country for an urban life in northeastern cities. The migration and rapidly evolving way of life that characterized the last century sparked a yearning for slower life. That nostalgia remains intact in the genre today, reverberating through the unplugged sound and lyrics that often harken back to a simpler time spent living closely entwined with the land.
Woody Platt, the multi-talented frontman of the Grammy-award-winning band Steep Canyon Rangers, embodies both the musicality and historic sentiment of bluegrass. An avid outdoorsman, experienced fly fisherman, and ardent conservationist, Platt lives today on a wooded, ten-acre property abutting the East Fork of the French Broad River in western North Carolina.
Born and raised in the Brevard area, Woody Platt had nourished a dream of settling his own spot on the river. “I always knew Brevard would be my place for the long term,” he confesses. “The pace of life here and the small, close knit community full of creatives and environmentalists is inspiring.” Thanks to his years of success with the Steep Canyon Rangers, he was able to transform his vision into reality.
The Steep Canyon Rangers officially formed in the fall of 1999, when most of the band’s founding members were students and friends at UNC Chapel Hill. As musicians, Graham Sharp, Charles Humphrey, and Mike Guggino arrived at the bluegrass genre at the same moment. Sharp had sustained a soccer career-ending knee injury and traded his cleats for a banjo. Platt was getting the hang of guitar as Humphrey was exploring the upright bass. And Guggino had just sold his saxophone and electric guitar to purchase a mandolin. The bluegrass bug was in the air, and the Rangers inhaled deeply.
“At the outset, it was just a fun hobby,” recalls Platt. “We played a lot of covers, but as soon as we called ourselves a band we started writing our own songs.” In most genres, this flurry of creativity would be embraced. Not so amongst bluegrass purists who, like the hallmark of the genre itself, are at times resistant to change.
The Steep Canyon Rangers did have one thing going for them: they are all Carolina boys. “Bluegrass music is very rich in its tradition in NC—possibly more than any other state in the U.S.,” explains Platt. That and they were damn good.
“We were getting hired to play these ultra-traditional bluegrass festivals. We had the matching outfits, and we really wanted to be accepted in the community. But we would roll in there and play a whole set of original songs, and that was a hard sell. Those people were like ‘Who are these outsiders and what are these songs?’ We just had to grin and bear it.”
The Rangers’ persistence paid off. They returned year after year to the same festivals and, in time, people started to regularly request their songs and buy records.
In the beginning, we were chasing the traditional sound and style.
The tones of Flatt and Scruggs, Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, and The Stanley Brothers dominated the Steep Canyon Rangers’ tunes—a classic unplugged, toe-tapping confluence of strings.
Since those early years, though, the band’s style has morphed.
“Because none of us really grew up on bluegrass music and had so many other influences, over time our band has branched out from our traditional roots to become more progressive and less bound by the strict definition of the music,” explains Platt. “Besides, the only way to stand out in a genre is to be original.”
Standing out is exactly what the Steep Canyon Rangers did. They attracted the attention of actor and musician Steve Martin in 2009 and soon began touring with him. Together, they released two collaborative albums. Shortly thereafter, the band’s solo album Nobody Knows You won the Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album.
Now, the band plays around 100 shows annually, in addition to hosting their own annual fundraiser, the Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, and volunteering extensively for nonprofits serving underprivileged youth.
But as soon as touring ends, Woody Platt returns home to the river.
“Fly fishing perfectly balances out the time spent on the road in cities and hotels. I enjoy the tour and of course the music, but when each trip is done a little time in the water is necessary,” explains Platt. “It’s almost like my version of meditation.”
We met Platt at his Brevard homestead, where we were introduced to his wife, another popular musician and an accomplished artist named Shannon Whitworth, and the couple’s son, Rivers. We talked and laughed for a bit about music, fishing, and living in the country, and then received a quick tour of the property. Rivers showed off his fiddle skills, and then we headed out to the water.
For half an hour, we followed Platt up and down a winding Appalachian road through the southern tip of Pisgah National Forest before arriving at a gate that opened to a long dirt road. Several minutes later, we parked the cars in the grass outside a pastoral riverside farmhouse. You could immediately hear the sound of flowing water. Excitement was in the air.
We got all of our gear together and rigged up all of our rods and flies. Though the chance of rain was near zero, it began to sprinkle as it often does in the misty, moody Blue Ridge. The sprinkle turned quickly to a downpour, but Platt didn’t even consider leaving the river. We were here, in his happy place, ready to cast tiny little flies made of chicken feathers to hungry (hopefully) trout, rain or shine.
He led our publisher, Brett Barter, and editor, JP Grice, to the first run we were going to fish. This stream was quintessential Blue Ridge pocket water. Large rocks jutted above the river creating big pools that hold fish. Rhododendrons lined both banks making for difficult casts. Bright, almost neon, moss covered the stones and trees. A canopy of green dimmed the already graying daylight while fog from the warm rain hitting the cool high country water rose dramatically.
Barter practiced his roll cast several times and then began to fish upstream. Within minutes a rainbow trout had eaten a nymph on the end of his fly line and he was hooked up. After a brief fight with the fish, it was netted, photographed, and then returned to the river. An authentic outdoorsman, Woody Platt is an ardent supporter of catch and release, as well as conservation more generally. He aspires to preserve the beauty of the natural world he loves so dearly.
Just minutes later, another rainbow, this one massive, ate Barter’s fly. The professional guide in Platt, realizing the size of the fish, immediately came to his aid, instructing him on what to do and how to fight the fish. The fly rod bent over like a crescent moon. After several long runs and dives into the depths of the river, the fish finally tired. The memorable battle between angler and trout, finally came to an end. Barter, smiling ear to ear, held the fish for a brief moment, then let the fish swim off into the darkness. He let out a howl and Platt and he high fived.
Those are the special, fleeting moments that make the sport of fly fishing so addictive. A very animated Platt chimed in, “let’s go catch some more boys,” so we eagerly continued upstream. For the next two hours it rained, totally soaking us, and no one gave a damn. We just kept on fishing the river’s pristine riffles and pockets, talking and laughing in between casts. We caught several more gorgeous rainbow and brown trout before Platt threw out an idea: drive back to his homestead and fish his water for brown trout. Sold!
We made it back to the Platt farm at the perfect time — early evening — to dry fly fish for big brown trout. We grabbed our gear and walked through chest high bushes to the water. This was a different kind of river, more reminiscent of a western spring creek. Here, there weren’t countless waterfalls or rhododendron lining the banks. Instead this wide river creeped slowly, meandering around S-curve after S-curve. Along the banks, our quarry was hiding, hopefully anxiously awaiting the perfectly presented fly.
Barter, with Woody Platt by his side instructing him the entire way, began to fish upstream. Cast after cast with no luck. Then — bam — a moment of fury when a rainbow trout, not a brown, snatched the dry fly off the surface of the water. A missed hook set, yet Barter wanted to experience more of that. The sensation of topwater “takes” is unique and incomparable. In between casts, we talked more fishing, about life and family, and about the importance of being outdoors.
Woody Platt recalled the beginning of his relationship to the river. He’d been fishing since he was a kid. He surf fished on the coast and bass fished in canoes with his dad. In sixth grade, he learned how to cast a fly rod, and from there was obsessed. He fished a pristine Davidson River before it had gained a reputation as one of the best rivers in the entire country. He spent hours on its banks and in its pockets. Nestled in the cradle of the Pisgah National Forest, he taught his friends the art of fly fishing.
In those years, you had the Davidson all to yourself. Glistening and untapped, the river and those who fished it passed most days unperturbed. Platt recalled one encounter vividly. “My mom dropped me off on the Davidson when I was around 14 years old. I was wading in and this old guy was wading out. He opened his box and he just filled my hands with flies—all stuff he had tied himself. He told me where the flies were hitting and it was this moment of connection. It was this moment of sharing passion and knowledge and tradition.”
Platt would experience similar communion as a young musician years later, trailing the greats at bluegrass festivals and talking his way into late night jam sessions. “Those players took us under their wings and encouraged us,” says Woody Platt. His two passions, music and fishing, dovetailed. A symbiotic relationship developed between the two. Just as Platt carries a cleansed mental palette on tour after fishing, he also brings musicality to his time on the river. And the sounds of the river affect him deeply.
“The music of the water is incredible. You’re knee-deep in a trout stream and you’re looking upstream at a waterfall but you’re hearing the riffle behind you. It is its own music,” says Platt. “The whole thing, if you think about it, is overwhelming. You’re not necessarily hearing what you’re seeing, and everything is making noise, singing to you.
We turned the final bend of his stretch of the river and waded towards the last riffles we’d be able to cast before the sun completely set. “Any time y’all wanna come hang out and fish, my door’s open,” Woody Platt said.
He instructed us on where to cast the final fly. We all watched as the the kaleidoscopic colors dimmed in the distance. Barter stood shin deep in cold mountain water, still grinning ear to ear, totally content just to listen to the music of the river as his dry fly drifted into the dark.
The water is where the QC team met him. Waders on and rods in hand, JP and Brett trailed Platt through high grass to his hidden honey spot on the French Broad. Here was a man who knew the water and the fish within like the back of his hand.
They cast for trout and, in Platt’s capable hands, they found them. Each fish was photographed, regarded, and returned to the river. An authentic outdoorsman, Platt is an ardent supporter of catch and release, as well as conservation more generally, and aspires to preserve the beauty of the natural world he loves so dearly.
When the skies darkened and a downpour drenched the fishermen’s heads, Platt led them back to his homestead, where his wife, musician Shannon Whitworth, and son, Rivers, waited in the family’s renovated farmhouse, adjacent to their barn art studio and upfitted airstream. They talked fish and music until their faces turned blue.