Friday, July 30, 2010

Steve Martin is a banjo connoisseur

Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers to play River Run

Express Staff Writer

     Comedian, actor and author Steve Martin will show off his impressive musical ability in a concert with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, at River Run on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m. Gates will open at 6 p.m.

     Tickets cost $35 for Sun Valley Center for the Arts members and $45 for nonmembers. To purchase tickets, go online to or call 726-9491, ext. 10, or visit The Center in Ketchum during regular business hours.

     Fans of the “wild and crazy guy” may remember Martin brandishing a banjo onstage in his early comic routines, but the instrument was mostly a prop that he used for laughs. In private, however, Martin was a serious student of the banjo who first took up the instrument at age 17. He decided to take his passion public after a collaboration with bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs in 2001.

     Martin’s not sure why he picked the banjo, except that the sound was immediately compelling to him.

     “I’d like to think it’s because we’re Americans and the banjo is truly an American instrument, and it captures something about our past,” Martin said. “I don’t play hillbilly music.”

     Martin’s music, almost all of which he writes himself, is more sophisticated and emotionally resonant than the toothless-in-overalls stereotype that plagues contemporary banjo players. Among country and bluegrass musicians, Martin is regarded as a master of an old-time mountain style of playing known as “clawhammer” or “frailing.” In this difficult five-fingered style, the instrument’s strings are pushed down by fingernails rather than pulled up with picks.

     Critics and audiences have taken Martin seriously as a musician since the 2009 release of his debut bluegrass album, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” which quickly reached No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass album chart, where it stayed for 12 weeks. His tours last year and this summer with the Steep Canyon Rangers have further solidified his reputation as an exceptional player whose concerts have “just the right combination of expert playing and delightful goofiness,” as one reviewer put it.

     The “goofiness” is due to Martin’s famous comedic skills, which enliven the between-songs banter. At a recent concert in Woodinville, Wash., the 60-something performer surveyed the audience and announced, “It’s like Woodstock for my generation,” adding “there is some bad antacid going around.”

     Martin knows how to pick ’em when it comes to choosing a backup band. An engaging Asheville, N.C., acoustic bluegrass quintet, the Steep Canyon Rangers were named “Emerging Artist of the Year” in 2006 at the IBMA awards ceremony in Nashville and were nominated for two International Bluegrass Music Association awards in 2008. The group has been regularly featured at the Grand Ole Opry, as well as at major U.S. festivals such as MerleFest, Telluride Bluegrass and RockyGrass.

     Opening for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers is Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile. Thile is a master of the mandolin, and his band was a big hit at Hop Porter Park in Hailey two years ago.

Sabina Dana Plasse:

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