The New Ambassador of the Banjo

Mainstream attention to bluegrass is picking up as the music evolves, reaching new listeners who are drawn to its depth and beauty. The emergence of a handful of high profile supporters/players is an undeniable factor in this recent growth spurt. Celebrities like Ed Helms and Peter Sarsgaard are bringing bluegrass to national TV and film, while music legends like Paul Simon bring its influence to new projects. Just like the scores of new fans, they connect with the authenticity of the music, proudly putting it on display for a much wider audience. But none have been more influential in recent years than Steve Martin. Long respected as an accomplished banjoist, a few recent collaborations with bluegrass titans Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka inspired Martin to embark on a full scale music career. Only 3 years after releasing his first album in 2009, ‘The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo,’ he’s added a Grammy to his collection as well as IBMA Entertainer of the Year honors, which he shares with the Steep Canyon Rangers, now his steadfast ally on the touring scene as well as the band on his latest album, ‘Rare Bird Alert.’ The best news of all is that Martin’s banjo playing is top notch–he writes and performs quality, tasteful music, representing the genre and all of its elusive qualities very well. This is not a novelty, it’s just real bluegrass reaching a much bigger crowd than ever before.

I recently spoke with Steve before writing a preview of his upcoming show in Charlottesville with the Steep Canyon Rangers. You can read the whole article here. We had met before, but this was a great chance to get a closer look at how the music side of his career came to be. I did some research that took me back to his comedy routine of the 1970’s. It had been a while, and I was amazed at how authoritative and musical Martin’s banjo playing was even back then.

Fast forward roughly 40 years and the banjo has taken on a bit of a different role. These days the comedy supports the music, and the music has evolved, but the commitment is the same. You just don’t get that good at anything without putting in a ton of time, and you don’t put a ton of time into something you don’t deeply appreciate and ultimately understand in your own way. It was clear from talking to Martin that the banjo is much more than a hobby, and now he has the accolades to prove it. Even more importantly, he remains humble and deeply appreciative of the ever-evolving bluegrass landscape. His collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers is a match made in heaven. I was lucky enough to see them play DelFest this past weekend, my first time seeing their full set. I have always loved the Rangers, as people and as musicians, and it seems they have made similar connections with Martin. He features them throughout the show, which contains a variety of excellent new music combined with the gut-busting/ridiculous humor that we have all become accustomed to over the years. Go see them, it is so worth it.

Our conversation ultimately led back to the source of everything banjo: the late, great Earl Scruggs. Simply put, Steve said “Earl gave me a third act.” Martin’s recent New Yorker article on Scruggs is required reading, giving us a glimpse into the appreciation/respect that has fueled his journey with the banjo. Before our conversation wrapped up, he shared one last profound thought that outlines the gravity of Earl’s influence: “Earl is one of the very few artists, in any creative field, where another musician actally gets credit for doing it EXACTLY like the original.” Music fans and pickers alike are lucky to have Steve Martin as one of the new ambassadors of the 5-string banjo.

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