Steve Martin Is Bluegrass Music’s New Ambassador
Steve Martin has a long line of credits behind his name, among them comic, actor, author, songwriter and musician. He can now add Ambassador, because with his last two albums of bluegrass music, ‘The Crow’ and ‘Rare Bird Alert,’ he is introducing new devotees to the music he loves.
“I have never encountered anybody who was at one of my concerts asking, ‘What is this?’” Steve tells The Boot. “We’re playing to audiences from a thousand to sometimes 7,000, and they love the music. They love that we are playing those instruments live in front of them, and they are not being assaulted with pyro or electric instruments. The audience, in most cases, sit quietly and listen and then they give a cheer at the end. They listen in a very sophisticated way, they applaud at the breaks and they leave, I believe, loving this music.
“The Steep Canyon Rangers are touring with me and they do a couple songs on their own and they kill them,” he continues. “That is really bluegrass right there. So I do think we’re spreading the gospel in a sense, and the music itself is reaching people.”
Steve’s dealings with the bluegrass community began in 2009, when he released ‘The Crow,’ which lead to immediate acceptance. “I don’t know what people say behind my back, but everyone has been very nice to me,” he says. “When I was nominated for an IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) award and came to the show, the people were very nice. That’s all I can speak of. I haven’t seen any negative press. I feel good about being able to take bluegrass on to television like ‘[the Late Show with David] Letterman‘ and ‘The View,’ and I’ve heard nice things about being able to do that. I really haven’t felt any negativity toward me or my music.”
Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys, who is a budding banjo player, says he could tell early in Steve’s career that he was a serious about his music. “A lot of people thought he was using the banjo as a prop in his comedy routine, but when I heard him play I knew he was an accomplished musician,” Joe recalls.
Steve acknowledges Joe’s statement, saying, “Being out with the Steep Canyon Rangers has definitely helped me improved my musicianship,” he says. “I’m playing with people and hearing people who do nothing but play 10 hours a day, their whole life. I’ve learned to specialize in my own music. I really appreciate my own playing in my own genre, but in terms of doing what these other guys are doing, I like to shut up and listen. But on the other hand, I don’t know where to place myself. I appreciate that someone called me an accomplished musician but it’s really within my own parameters. Since I’ve come back into bluegrass, I know my playing has improved, and in concert my stage playing has improved. In that hour-and-a-half on stage I’m feeling good.”
The legendary entertainer says he listens to a variety of bluegrass music these days, including Frank Solivan, Mike Munford on banjo, the Seldom Scene, Lonesome Highway, Blue Moon Rising, Del McCoury, the Grascals and Hot Rize. “I like all kinds of music,” he adds. “I listen to Abigail Washburn, the Punch Brothers, and Marc Johnson, the great clawhammer player. I also listen a lot to Sirius Radio, there’s a lot of bluegrass there.”
Steve is not a casual listener, explaining, “People will hand me records at a concert and I’ll copy them into the computer, then put it on my iPhone and absorb it. It takes me weeks and weeks of dedicated listening to absorb a record. You can’t call up someone the next day and tell them how you liked their new CD. I have discovered songs on records a year later that I didn’t really hear those first few times I listened to it.”
Martin is touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers, with upcoming shows in Las Vegas in April, then back to the East and Southeast in May. His movie ‘The Big Year,’ which co-stars Jack Black and Owen Wilson, releases this fall. Steve portrays an avid bird watcher who is in the midst of his big year of rare bird sightings. He says it’s about bonding and competition and humor, and describes it as “a very interesting off-beat movie.”