Steve Martin: The Unlikely Ambassador of Bluegrass
Thanks to celebrity banjo picker Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, old-time bluegrass is the hot new thing
photo: Brad Swonetz
The toilets in the basement of New York City’s B. B. King nightclub are overflowing. It is not a modest spill. More like a boot-high flood of unmistakable sewage, determinedly running through the premises as if tardy for an appointment.
Inside the dressing room backstage, adjacent to the surge, Steve Martin is picking his banjo, wearing a crisp suit, a pocket square, and supple leather loafers.
“Perhaps we should close the door?” he suggests with trademark understatement.
Martin is in town to play an unbilled gig with the bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers. The Rangers, a group of five men—Woody Platt (33), Graham Sharp (34), Charles Humphrey III (34), Mike Guggino (32), and Nicky Sanders (31)—have been performing together for a decade, most since college at UNC–Chapel Hill, where they evolved from a likable group of promising amateurs to one of the premier acoustic acts touring today.
Martin, who has played banjo for forty-five years, connected with the Rangers through “pure serendipity. I was at a party in North Carolina. The band came over, and they were great.”
Martin had just recorded his own bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, which would go on to win a Grammy in 2010, and he needed a touring band.
“I had played with the Rangers once onstage and it was sort of magic for me. The songs had never sounded that good.”
For their part, the Rangers were eager to learn a new catalogue of music, something they believed would strengthen their already formidable skill set. They were also fine with playing to a packed house every night, something Martin, with his fame, could guarantee. The match was made, and the men have collaborated seamlessly since. Well, almost.
“Initially it was difficult for me to fit in with a group of well-honed musicians,” Martin admits. “Onstage, when to come in, when to go out. I had to learn so much. They were tolerant.”
“Steve was nervous the first gig,” recalls Platt, who remembers his new bandmate suffering some pronounced queasiness. “It is still one of my favorite performances of all time.”
Tonight at B. B. King’s, the billing lists only the Rangers. Martin will be a surprise guest, sitting in for a few songs, much to the shock of the moderate midweek crowd.
“I didn’t even know he played banjo!” whispers one gobsmacked guest when Martin walks onstage.“I didn’t know he played so well,” adds another.
Martin is accustomed to the astonishment. His facility is not what one would expect of any picker, let alone one who stars in movies with Meryl Streep. He tempers some of the shock by mixing comedy into the set, either with clever banter or within the songs themselves, numbers like “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” an a cappella riff hilariously lamenting the dearth of spirituals for nonbelievers.
Some folks sing a Bach cantata
Lutherans get Christmas trees
Atheist songs add up to nada
But they do have Sundays free
“I have loved the banjo since I was seventeen, since the Kingston Trio,” Martin says. “I used to go to coffeehouses in California to hear that folk music style. Flatt and Scruggs even came to play.”
Martin didn’t know he was musical until he bought his first five-string for two hundred dollars. “I have no idea where I got that money from.” He sat down and set about learning “Cripple Creek.”
“Music has been pretty consistent for me. I write all my own songs now, and I’ve developed a unique style along with that.”
Martin’s picking is soft, with a hint of breath beneath the notes, the resultant sound thick and strummy, smacking of clawhammer flavor. If his playing were a potato, it would be one with gravy.
Martin says he wrote many of the songs on The Crow in the ’60s. Then he did a few other, slightly more lucrative things, returning to music in 2001 when he recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with Earl Scruggs. “That’s when I started thinking about recording my own album,” he says. “I wasn’t nervous. I just booked a date. I believed in the songs.”
Though he has decades of playing experience, “I’ve only been doing this onstage professionally for a year,” Martin says, delineating between his private and public picking. “My hope is that people hear the music by accident and like it.”
His bandmates find this claim unnecessarily modest. “Steve Martin is doing more for bluegrass than any other person on the planet right now,” says Guggino, who plays mandolin and sings harmony vocals for the Rangers. Guggino, darkly handsome, grew up with Platt, the charismatic lead singer and guitarist (who resembles a cross between Paul Bunyan and Tom Hanks). The two friends discovered bluegrass at the same time, just as they entered college.
“Bill Monroe started it all for me,” Guggino says.
Possessed by the sound of the mandolin, Guggino dropped everything and devoted himself to learning how to play. Soon enough he moved to Asheville to live with Platt and the other members of the fledgling band that had gotten its start in dive bars in Chapel Hill. “We had this big entertainment center with a record player, and it was the school,” Guggino says. “One at a time, we would sit and put on bluegrass records and listen, and learn.”
Like Martin, Guggino and his fellow Rangers came from a traditional approach. Their instrumentation and arrangement tilt toward the classic, with a prominent vein of respect for the past. “I appreciate the newer stuff, like the Punch Brothers—they’re amazing. But I really love the old-time bluegrass.”
So, it seems, do a lot of folks.
“People like real music,” Guggino argues. “They like to see real people play real instruments. It is a truly American art form many have never heard before. Bluegrass never promotes itself very well. Which is where Steve comes in.”
When the Rangers tour with Martin, it is not just the set list (and catering) that is different. “We’re part of the bluegrass education tour,” jokes Platt, explaining that the Martin audience is often unfamiliar with the music. “Steve gets his fans into shows. These are people who have never heard bluegrass in their whole lives.”
“I play to a different audience than a regular bluegrass band does,” Martin agrees. “I play at Wisconsin performing arts centers. And maybe half of them know the music. And they leave loving it. It’s not artificially produced. It isn’t blasting their ears with volume. It is graspable, but also complex.”
As Martin’s converted crowds bear out, there is little as immediately, innately appealing as the sound of bluegrass. It’s a young art. The first bluegrass song was played in the ’40s, when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs debuted their new sound, a sound that really wasn’t so new, just old-timey hillbilly music that hadn’t found its way out of the woods yet. Once sprung, the music needed a name, so they settled on bluegrass, a nod to Monroe’s home state of Kentucky.
“It’s such an American sound,” Platt marvels. “To see a bluegrass band is one of the purest experiences you can have. You know where the sound comes from. It is so bare. You can connect as a listener.”
Maybe it is the unplugged nature of the music. Or the winsome tone. Or the undeniable charms of the instruments themselves—wood with strings, simple, solid, elemental. But when you listen to bluegrass, you feel part of something. You are immersed in the current of life. There is something about the ebb and flow of the rhythms, the lift and fall, the harmonies coalescing into a transporting hum.
To listen to bluegrass is to forget to be lonely.
BEHIND THE MUSIC
It is a brisk Brevard, North Carolina, fall afternoon, and the Rangers, sans Martin, are rehearsing in Platt’s living room. A fire is lit in the cast-iron stove, mugs of coffee heating on top. There is a swing on the front porch, a straw hat left behind. Out the side window, a pine tree sways in the wind; beyond it sit acres of pasture and rivers running clear enough to spot the copper heads of trout like pennies in a fountain. When the band begins and the first resonant plucks of the banjo imbue the air, it seems as if no other music could possibly fill the room, so quintessentially bluegrass is the scene.
They work through “Hollerin’ House,” written by banjo picker Sharp, a Chuck Norris doppelgänger, if Norris had a shy smile. A former comparative literature student, Sharp based the song on Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.
Before the Rangers, Sharp had played for the UNC soccer team. Then he got injured. He picked up the banjo for something to do while he recuperated. “I don’t know why I was drawn to the banjo. I just thought it was something that sounded good.”
So he practiced, took lessons. His body healed. But by then, he was hooked.
“I remember the first time it dawned on me how cool bluegrass was. I went to this little festival. And all these old-timers were hanging around the parking lot. And I got out my banjo and we started playing together.”
Sharp marveled at the ease of the bond. How simple it was to connect. “Culturally, we probably couldn’t have been further apart, but we could all stand in a circle and play these songs. It was an epiphany for me. It was its own language. With bluegrass you can talk to anybody.”
Ironically, the language of bluegrass is rarely written down. It is shared by ear. Apprentices learn from masters. But it is not an exclusive club.
“Look at us!” Platt says. “We started from scratch.” The whole band, minus Sanders, was self-taught, a mission so thoroughly accomplished they seem to have been born with instruments in their hands.
The Rangers have been playing together long enough that they need only catch one another’s eye to know when to speed up or stress a chord. During rehearsal they experiment on new endings for “Between Midnight and the Dawn,” how many counts to hold the last note. The collaboration is smooth, good-natured. Which is another benefit of bluegrass: no BS. There is no such thing as a bluegrass diva. Also, no costume changes.
“If I could instantly be as good at another type of music, like jazz or rock, I wouldn’t do it,” says Humphrey, an avid surfer/bass player, noting there is nothing pretentious or striving about bluegrass. Its humble roots have held strong. “Bluegrass is very accessible. I like how organic it feels.”
Humphrey was studying Latin American economics when he dreamed he was playing bass in Carnegie Hall. The very next day he signed up for lessons. In the spring of 2010, the Rangers played Carnegie Hall, a literal realization of a dream that freaks Humphrey out less than you’d think it might.
“After junior year me and Charles lived in a camper in the Outer Banks with three other guys,” Sharp says. “We’d sit and pick with this old worn-out songbook, nose to nose.” The first time they were paid to play was for twenty dollars at the Top Dog hot dog stand in Rodanthe. “Now we’ve made it onto the Opry. We played the Ryman fifteen times so far.”
The November afternoon is getting on, yet the band keeps practicing, tweaking notes and arrangements, chatting a bit in between. Sanders says the Rangers’ website crashed after a recent Austin City Limits performance with Martin was posted. They aren’t accustomed to so much web traffic.
“Maybe it was hacked,” Sanders says, shrugging.
“Yeah, maybe the Punch Brothers put a bite on us,” Humphrey jokes.
The kidding stops and the music resumes, a soft wail of a song, haunting and cheerful at the same time. The breakdowns meld seamlessly, blending together without losing themselves.
Later, after the other men have left, Platt drinks a glass of wine by the fire. A onetime fly-fishing guide, he now makes his living exclusively playing bluegrass. “Fiddle and banjo are turning up in lots of other bands now,” he says. “The branches of bluegrass are growing.”
Nothing would please Platt more than for everyone to share in the good times. “I love making music I create in my living room with guys I’ve known most of my life. At the end of the day, we’re all just friends trying to make music that makes people happy,” he says, grinning.
SEDUCED BY BLUEGRASS
Not long ago, Martin hired a stylist for the Rangers before a Good Morn-ing America appearance. The men all got fashion advice and clothes fittings, as well as haircuts, one by one. They then came back into the room, coiffed and oiled.
“I don’t think it ended up being quite the transformation Steve was imagining,” Platt says, laughing.
The band is driving to a gig in Charlotte, piled into their RV, a tidy camper sorely in need of some fresh shocks.
Makeovers aside, the Rangers have always been dapper onstage. They wear suits and ties. They like the look, and the respect it shows for the music and the audience. They are old-school that way. Grateful and in tune with their blessings. You’d have to wait a long while before you heard any member of the Rangers complain about anything.
“Except for driving!” says Sanders, with a sigh. Handling the RV between gigs can be a bit of a drag, especially as it prohibits after-show beers for the driver.
Sanders was twenty-four when he joined the Rangers, the only classically trained musician in the band. “I started at age five,” he says. “According to my parents, I begged for a violin.”
Preternaturally gifted, Sanders devoted himself to classical music for the next twenty years. When other kids were at recess, he was memorizing Mendelssohn. He ended up at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, his future in a prestigious orchestra all but cemented. Then one evening he walked into the tiny Cantab Lounge and happened upon a bluegrass open-mike night.
“There were a couple tunes I recognized,” Sanders says. “That was it. I jumped up onstage and dove in. It was arrogant confidence. I wasn’t very good at sounding like a bluegrass fiddle player. I just knew I wanted to sound like someone other than Joshua Bell.”
Like his future bandmates, Sanders was instantaneously smitten. He started investigating bluegrass, ignoring the disdain of his classically trained colleagues.
“I get asked at every show, what is the difference between violin and fiddle? It is the same block of wood; the difference is how you use it.”
He was also, he discovered, “a bit of a ham,” something frowned upon in classical circles. “The number one thing that attracted me to bluegrass was the improvisational nature. You are expected to let loose, which classical music forbids.”
Admittedly obsessive-compulsive, San-ders says bluegrass changed him, perhaps even saved him. “The real difference is that in classical music, 100 percent of what I played would be from the page. Now my performance is about 50 percent pure whim. And that feels really good.”
Onstage, Sanders is a wonder, his playing inspired magic. He weaves bits of classical, humor, and pop culture into his solos, the audience laughing in delight when they recognize a Beatles riff or a movie theme amid the bluegrass mix. Watching Sanders perform is like watching a basket of puppies, an unpredictable mess of pure joy. It is no wonder that bluegrass spoils people for other musical experiences.
“I’ve never been drawn to any other music,” Martin says. “I like the Appalachian tunings, the heartbreaking quality, even in a major key. I think the sound of bluegrass is inside all Americans.”
Indeed, even if you’ve never heard the music, it is at once familiar. The sweet moan and whine of the fiddle resonates, inhabiting your body like water, quenching thirsts you scarcely realized you had. So too the skipping-pebble strum of the mandolin, the booming sureness of the fiddle, and, most indelibly, the sunshine clarity of the banjo.
For Martin, as with each of the Rangers, the seduction was immediate and complete. “The banjo,” he says dryly, “was never a hobby.”
Martin has a new album with the Rangers out in March called Rare Bird Alert. It boasts some A-list collaborators, including Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks. Martin wrote all the songs, a process that, like the music, mystifies and enlivens him.
“I understand everything I do but songwriting,” he says. “I understand where essays come from, where novels and acting come from. But songs, I don’t. It’s hard to explain.” He tells a story about when a banjo arrived in the mail, and the moment he opened it, he began playing “The Crow.” “It was like the song came in the box.”
Martin says he is pleased with the current ascension of bluegrass. “In the ’60s nobody was making decent banjos. Now you can buy a brand-new one that is really good. There is some kind of interest going on.” Martin is also amazed at how fast and deep the talent pool has grown.
“There are so many people to admire now. I created this banjo award [the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass] because I was impressed with the quality of musicianship. The level now is so superior to when I started.”
Martin says he isn’t sure why bluegrass is growing so rapidly and well but speculates the Internet may have something to do with it. “It used to be such a rural, Southern thing. But now you can YouTube a bluegrass concert.”
There is also his own presence, his obvious love for the craft. Celebrity shines a spotlight like no other. If Oprah can sell millions of books, Martin can surely push a few banjos.
“I like being an ambassador for bluegrass,” he says with a look of uncharacteristic satisfaction. “I hear that a lot, and it is okay with me.”
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