Steve Martin Dispels All Doubts About His Banjo Skills

Earl Scruggs, John McEuen and Steep Canyon Rangers Add to a Night of Great Music

In case you were wondering, Steve Martin really is a hell of a banjo player. He more than proved that Sunday night (Oct. 11) during a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Between songs, Martin delivered a generous helping of the humor he’s famous for, but music is at the forefront of the current tour showcasing material from his album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.

Judging by his self-deprecating comments onstage, Martin obviously understands that some people may be skeptical of his desire to play bluegrass music. And who could blame them? Not to name names, but there’s a fairly lengthy list of movie stars who proclaim they would have been singers and musicians if only they hadn’t been sidetracked by Hollywood’s fame and fortune. They want to be taken seriously, but the unfortunate reality is that most of them record albums that leave you wondering if they ever had any serious musical chops to begin with.

Martin’s musical abilities were never really in question, though. During his prime as a standup comedian in the ’70s, the banjo was an integral part of his act, and audiences could detect a serious musician lurking beneath his persona as the wild and crazy guy with a fake arrow stuck on his head. He later ratcheted up his musical credibility by joining Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and others on Earl Scruggs‘ updated version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a recording that won a Grammy in 2001.

But even as good as the music sounded on The Crow, modern recording technology can make marginally-talented musicians and singers seem larger than life. At an acoustic concert, however, musicians have little to hide behind other than a microphone. And that was the beauty of Martin’s show at the Ryman.

Backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers, one of the finest bluegrass bands to emerge in recent years, Martin displayed his versatility by moving from the Scruggs style of three-fingered picking to an old-time frailing technique and a more modern chromatic approach. He was the star of the show, but he honored the bluegrass tradition of acting as a sideman while allowing the spotlight to shine on guitarist-vocalist Woody Platt, banjo player Graham Sharp, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Charles R. Humphrey III and fiddler Nicky Sanders.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen, Martin’s longtime friend, opened the show with what amounted to a brief history of the development of American string music. Emphasizing the importance of Earl and the late Louise Scruggs’ involvement in the Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album series, McEuen paid tribute to the late Merle Travis with some intricate guitar picking on “I Am a Pilgrim” and “Cannonball Rag.” He also lauded the late Vassar Clements by playing the fiddle in a segment that led to him grabbing his banjo for the musical backing on his recitation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem, “The Mountain Whippoorwill (Or How Hillbilly Jim Won the Great Fiddler’s Prize),” a staple of his performances with the Dirt Band during the ’70s.

During Martin’s set, Dan Tyminski and Rhonda Vincent made a guest appearance to sing “Pretty Flowers,” a song Vince Gill and Dolly Parton recorded with Martin for The Crow. For Martin’s encore, Scruggs and his son, Gary, made a guest appearance on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

One of the running jokes among musicians is that you can’t make a living playing bluegrass. Martin alluded to that by describing the look on his agent’s face when he announced he wanted to do a “banjo tour.” And in noting the Nashville show was one of the first stops in a national tour, he said, “If everything goes according to plan, I only stand to lose $12,000.”

In the meantime, Martin’s album and tour are providing a huge boost to bluegrass by exposing the music to a wider audience. And if he ever decides to abandon his career as an actor, author, screenwriter and film producer, he’s in a good position to get a gig in a bluegrass band. I’m sure he already knows the joke about the banjo player with a pager.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.