published Friday, May 20th, 2011

Wild and crazy about bluegrass

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers are set to perform at Memorial Auditorium on Thursday. (Associated Press File Photo)
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers are set to perform at Memorial Auditorium on Thursday. (Associated Press File Photo)

IF YOU GO

What: Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers — Woody Platt, Charles Humphrey III, Graham Sharp, Mike Guggino and Nicky Sanders.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Memorial Auditorium, 399 McCallie Ave.

Admission: $39.50 to $68.

Phone: 642-TIXS.

All through his wild-and-crazy, arrow-through-the-head days, Steve Martin always included a banjo number in his stand-up shows. Sometimes it was a prop, but always there was a very serious, full-blown banjo number.

For his show here Thursday at Memorial Auditorium, there will be comedy, to be sure, but Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers are coming to showcase their bluegrass chops.

Martin said in a conference call with reporters last month that his interest in the banjo began in 1962 when he was 17 and first heard the Kingston Trio. Earl Scruggs and the Dillards also were early influences as was John McEuen, Martin’s high school friend who would go on to perform with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Comedy, of course, became Martin’s ticket to fame, and after working as a writer on such shows as “the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” his career as a stand-up comedian took off with frequent appearances on “The Tonight Show” and later “Saturday Night Live.” In the ’80s, he was filling up large arenas with his trademark white suits, arrow through the head, balloon animals, “Excuuuuuuse meeeeee” and absurdist cat-juggling routines.

“I was always aiming to be in show business,” he said of his early career choices. “I liked the sort of ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo. ... But, you know, my heart was in comedy. And the fortunes led me to comedy.

“I used the banjo onstage during my comedy show in a kind of comedic way and also in a serious way. I always played a serious banjo song at least once during even my highest moment of stand-up.”

After his successful stand-up tours, movies came next, and he has starred in dozens of films and had success with films including “The Jerk” and “All of Me.”

His 2009 release of “The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo” was his first all-music album but not his first musical recording. He had a million-selling hit in 1978 with the single, “King Tut.” The novelty song featured the Too Uncommons, actually members of the Dirt Band, as backing band. It was included on the album “Wild and Crazy Guy.” The song will likely be part of the set list for Thursday night because “I also want people to know that our live show is fun,” he said, “[and] that when they come to the live show it’s not going to me standing on the stage with my back to the audience playing 30 songs in a row, you know, with no comedy.”

Martin won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 2001 for his recording of Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” “The Crow” won the Grammy last year for Best Bluegrass Album. After touring and doing such events as Bonnaroo, Martin and the Rangers went back into the studio last year and recorded “Rare Bird Alert.”

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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