Stand Up for Bluegrass

Stand Up for Bluegrass

Steve Martin becomes ambassador for the banjo

April 30th, 2011 in Local Regional News

Photo: AP Photo

Photo: AP Photo

The last time Steve Martin took the stage in Chattanooga, it was all about laughs. When he returns to the Scenic City May 26 he'll bring his banjo, a top-notch bluegrass band...and the same sense of humor.

Martin has now grown accustomed to the shock. After all, the only other comedians who've been able to make successful segues into music careers are Charlie Chaplin and Steve Allen.

"Sometimes when actors try to become musicians there's a great resistance," admits Martin. "But it's not that they're trying to become musicians - they're trying to become rock stars. And that's always kind of ludicrous. It's like they're not paying their dues."

Since recording his first album, "The Crow," Martin has been welcomed into the music world with open arms, winning a Grammy in 2010. Even so, he's most proud of the album's six IBMA nominations, considering it the "toughest group to pass muster with." Audiences have also been bowled over by the funny man's very serious talent.

"There's something about the banjo," explains Martin. "It looks and sounds very difficult. And it is. So you play a three-finger banjo thing at lightning speed and suddenly, they're not laughing."

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform during the Bonnaroo music festival. (Photo: AP Photo)

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform...

Of course, concertgoers do laugh, but only at appropriate times. With comedy sprinkled throughout the show, Martin glibly ushers the audience through an evening of music and humor - a mix that, surprisingly, people are more than willing to embrace.

"I'm not the only one doing comedy," claims Martin. "Almost all the bluegrass shows do comedy, so that's sort of a tradition. I probably do my own style."

Martin says his love affair with the banjo was instantaneous and "primordial" at age 17 after hearing The Kingston Trio. "When I heard it I literally could part with my ears the other instruments and just listen to the banjo," he recalls. He set about learning the instrument, but his tastes swerved from folk to bluegrass after hearing Earl Scruggs and The Dillards. And although the banjo has always been present in his life, early on it read more like a prop, playing it with an arrow shot through his head.

"I was always aiming to be in show business," explains Martin when asked if he wanted a career in music or comedy. "I liked the ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo on stage, but my heart was in comedy, and fortunes led me to comedy."

Even at the height of his stand-up fame, Martin always played one serious banjo song. Today, his preferences have shifted to light doses of comic relief amongst a very thoughtful concert. And while this is his first time sharing the stage, Martin says he prefers the camaraderie of a band.

"I don't call myself a natural musician," says Martin. "I've never played with a group in my life, and it did take a while to get used to. But now I feel 100 percent comfortable on stage playing music."

Pickin' Partners

As luck would have it, when Steve Martin's agent told him he needed a touring band to promote his first bluegrass album one immediately came to mind.

Actor and musician Steve Martin, left, performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival. (Photo: AP Photo)

Actor and musician Steve Martin, left, performs with...

"I said, 'Well, I only know one,' and I just got lucky that it all worked out," explains Martin of his collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers. "We have the same sense of drama. It continues to be a good creative match."

The only problem, Martin jokes, is that he had to change the story of their first encounter to make it more Hollywood-friendly, claiming it was rehab. Instead, it was a North Carolina dinner party.

After an informal pickin' session, Martin recalls feeling a bit "cowed" by the Rangers' talent. "It's one of the most unique bluegrass concerts you'll ever see," promises Steep Canyon Rangers lead singer and guitarist Woody Platt. "You get the Steve Martin you would expect, but you also get very serious, thoughtful music."

Almost overnight, the five-member band - Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, Charles Humphrey III, Mike Guggino and Nicky Sanders - went from playing bluegrass festivals, high schools and coffeehouses to Carnegie Hall, "Good Morning America" and David Letterman. "It's definitely made life a little more interesting," Platt says wryly.

But that's not to say the Rangers, who were still in diapers when Martin starred in "The Jerk," are playing second fiddle. Already accomplished musicians in their own right, they were named 2006 Emerging Artist of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Awards Show. The band's 2010 album, "Deep in the Shade," remained in the Bluegrass Top 10 on Billboard for 18 weeks. This March, the band released its first collaborative record with Martin, "Rare Bird Alert," which debuted No. 1 on the Billboard's Bluegrass Chart and No. 43 on Billboard Top 200.

"It just feels like a really good pairing," says Platt. "On a personal level there's enough common interest between us. He doesn't outshine us and we don't outshine him."

There's something innately appealing about their harmony - the bright twang of the banjos, strummed at almost manic speed, mellowed by the brooding whine of the fiddle and bass. The result is almost a whitewash of traditional bluegrass - giving it a fresh look while still allowing its original beauty to shine through.

It's a distinctly American sound, but ironically one that many have never heard before...until now. The shows are packed with fans from Martin's other 40-plus-year career who, once witnessing the men's unique sound and staggering talent, find themselves instantly converted.

"I've never taken a poll, but I think a lot of the audience either doesn't know bluegrass or kind of knows bluegrass," says Martin. "And my feeling is that they leave really happy and want to continue sampling this kind of music."

Of course, that's the effect bluegrass can have at the hands of a master. It creeps into your psyche, taking residence in your soul. It's how, in the 1960s, a Southern California teenager can teach himself to play the banjo after listening to The Kingston Trio, Earl Scruggs and The Dillards. Immediately seduced by the banjo's melancholy sound and dynamic speed, Martin found few kindred spirits in his Orange County hometown, save for high school classmate John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

But it's also how four college kids - all self-trained - evolved from "living room fun" at UNC-Chapel Hill to professional musicians in less than three years. Platt, Humphrey and Sanders all happened upon their respective instruments (guitar, bass and banjo) during their junior and senior years. Platt's childhood friend, Guggino, was dabbling in the mandolin at the time and would drive to Chapel Hill for shows.

Sanders, the only classically trained musician in the group, joined the Rangers in 2004, abandoning a nearly 20-year dream of playing orchestral violin. The decision to switch gears came after a bluegrass open-mic night. When he heard the Rangers were looking for a fiddle player, he jumped at the chance.

"Bluegrass is almost like a language," says Humphrey. "You can get together with four musicians you've never met and they know the same songs and how the instruments work within a role."

To see them play, you'd think it comes easy, but don't be fooled. Each musician takes his craft very seriously, practicing hours to get it exactly right. "He's always writing new songs and is a bit of a perfectionist," says Humphrey of his new band mate. "Steve is one of the most motivated individuals I've met. He's into so many things - actor, author, art collector, great banjo player. He's always working on something which sets a good example for all of us."

The upcoming Chattanooga show won't be the band's first trip to the Scenic City. Martin performed here in the '70s as a stand-up comedian, while the Rangers visit was more recent, playing the Three Sisters and Boxcar Pinion Bluegrass festivals several years back. In fact, the Rangers ties to Chattanooga extend to the band's very origins in Chapel Hill, playing one of their first gigs on the porch of Lookout Mountain native Kate Caldwell. The band attributes their early success to the support of their network of friends at UNC, where even first "pieced together" shows were well attended.

"I don't think we had any plans to make it, we were just surprised by our success and how much we enjoyed doing it," says Sharp. "In a way that was kind of a luxury - not trying to put together a professional band, but just a group of people who enjoy playing."

And while success has seemed to come relatively easy to this five-person troupe, they aren't taking anything for granted. In many ways, life has remained relatively unchanged.

"People stop me at my kid's preschool to ask if that was really me playing on 'The Colbert Report' the night before - little things like that," quips Sharp. "But we're still the same band. We're just more comfortable on a bigger stage."

A lot of that has to do with Martin, who's been incredibly generous, says Platt - always careful to use the band's name in promotions and bowing out of a few songs mid-show. Last year the Rangers played a staggering 130 shows, only 60 of those with Martin. And while retaining their identity is important, the collaboration is equally valuable.

"We're a tight group, kind of like a band of brothers, so it's been easy for us to surround Steve," says Platt. "But after this much touring it's not like Steve and the Rangers, it's a band, and that feels really great."