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Weekend Watch: Music fest highlights history of Americana

Moorhead - All of the nearly 30 acts at this weekend’s Roots on the Red festival nod to the music and artists that came before them, paving the way for contemporary Americana.

But the road for many on the bill wasn’t a direct route. Some came to their own style of blues, country or folk through punk (William Elliot Whitmore), alternative rock (Mike Doughty) and rock-a-billy (J.D. McPherson).

For the members of Steep Canyon Rangers, it took leaving home to finally listen to the music next door.

Singer/guitarist Woody Platt says that while he and most of his other five bandmates grew up in North Carolina, they didn’t pay attention to the music of the region – bluegrass – until they were in college.

“It was always around. It was right across the street from my house,” Platt says. “You could find it if you wanted to, but we really didn’t get into it until college.”

At the time, Platt was already playing with current bandmates and songwriters, bassist Charles R. Humphrey III and banjo-playing singer Graham Sharp. When Humphrey switched to an upright bass and Sharp picked up the banjo, “We were pretty much heading for bluegrass,” Platt says.

Though it took him years to come to the music he grew up around, he’s not surprised bluegrass has such a strong appeal across the country and around the world.

“It’s just very tangible,” Platt explains. “Once people are exposed to it, it’s easy to like. It’s easy to listen to, and it’s very fun to watch. You can follow the music with your eyes. You can understand who is playing what.”

The Steep Canyon Rangers worked backwards, studying music of the generation before them and then the generation before that.

As their reputation as traditionalists solidified, their fanbase grew, including perhaps the world’s best-known banjo player.

A friend introduced the Rangers to comic Steve Martin, and they started jamming almost immediately. They appeared together in 2009 on “A Prairie Home Companion” and two years later released their first disc, “Rare Bird Alert,” which received a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass album.

While already known in Bluegrass circles, Steep Canyon was now on the national map, even when they weren’t playing with Martin. After “Rare Bird Alert,” the group released “Nobody Knows You,” their seventh disc without their comic front man. The record earned them a Grammy.

Platt says he and the rest of the Rangers learned a lot since they started playing with Martin, from his style of playing, his approach to songwriting and his stage presence. While the actor won’t be at the Moorhead show, there will be some of his influence on the stage.

“Playing 40 to 70 shows a year with him for the last five years naturally changed how we do our own show,” Platt says.

While the group has never played Fargo-Moorhead before, they did play WE Fest in Detroit Lakes, Minn., with Martin in 2012.

“That was a fun time,” Platt recalls. “It wasn’t necessarily our audience or the best setting for Steve Martin’s comedy, in my opinion, because it was such a vast, partying-type crowd and his comedy does a little better in a more controlled environment.”

The group and Martin teamed up again in 2013, this time with Edie Brickell for “Love Has Come for you.” Another star was added to the mix when Brickell’s husband, singer/songwriter Paul Simon joined them on the road.

Platt is looking forward to working with all of those artists again.

“There’s too much of a foundation there,” he says. “We’ve put too much into it to walk away.”

But the group isn’t waiting for individual artist’s schedules to align. They released “Tell the Ones I Love,” a year ago and have been busy touring behind it.

The disc has been well-received, though it raised some eyebrows with the use of drums on some tracks. Platt says the rhythm addition shouldn’t come as a shock since previous acts had used a bit of a backbeat from time to time.

“We’re forever an evolving project, and some of the music we were writing seemed like it would fit,” he says. “It’s really just about pushing down the conceptions about what is and isn’t bluegrass.”

If You Go WHAT: Roots on the Red, featuring Steve Earle & Shawn Colvin, Ryan Bingham, Steep Canyon Rangers, J.D. McPherson, Jeremy Messersmith, Joe Pug, William Elliot Whitmore, Mike Doughty and more.

WHEN: Gates open at 11 a.m., music runs from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

where: Bluestem Amphitheater, 801 50th Ave. S., Moorhead

tickets: Tickets are $75 for two-day reserved seat pass, $50 for two-day general admission, $30 for single-day general admission. Free general admission for children 12 and younger. (866) 300-8300.