Preview: Steve Martin brings his serious bluegrass to Charlottesville

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Steve Martin will be pickin’ and the audience will be grinnin’ when he takes the Pavilion stage Saturday alongside the Steep Canyon Rangers. (Publicity Photo)

After years of creative success in TV, film, theater, and print, Steve Martin has found a meaningful, and somewhat unlikely, new home in the world of bluegrass music. His dedication to the banjo has resulted in two acclaimed albums since 2009, a Grammy Award, and what looks to be a long-term collaboration with one of the best young bands in the genre, the Steep Canyon Rangers. Together they will take the stage at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on Saturday for “an evening of bluegrass and comedy.” Martin (currently rehearsing the music for Shakespeare in the Park) recently took a break to speak about his musical endeavors, and it was clear that while the comedy alone is worth the price of admission, the music is truly the main event. Martin’s star power may bring a much broader audience than the genre is accustomed to, but he earned his bluegrass credibility through hard work and a true appreciation and understanding of the tradition.

The banjo was a mainstay in Martin’s stand-up career from early on. He capitalized on the novelty of the instrument, fitting it seamlessly into his bizarre, genius tapestry of humor, while playing it incredibly well. A true student of the banjo, he forged connections in the bluegrass world, ultimately recording with the greatest icon of them all, Earl Scruggs. They collaborated on the 2001 release, Earl Scruggs and Friends, stoking Martin’s creative fire to play and write music. Several years later, a connection with banjo legend Tony Trischka led to working together on Trischka’s acclaimed Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, released in 2007. The record features some of the biggest names in the banjo world, and Martin’s contribution is a highlight.

It wasn’t long before he was working on his own album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. Released in 2009, the album took home the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, solidifying a new path for Martin as a serious writer and player. When his agent called to say it was time to go on the road, Martin said the prospect was “terrifying, because I hated going on tour.” Traveling the stand-up circuit was solitary, often difficult, and he shied away from it despite his recent musical recognition.

Enter the Steep Canyon Rangers, a young band from western North Carolina making significant waves on the bluegrass scene. Their connection to Steve Martin (initially arranged by his wife Anne, a friend of the band) was perhaps the key ingredient in the musical transformation from studio to stage. After a few jam sessions and informal appearances with the band, the chemistry was obvious and a number of tour dates were scheduled on the heels of The Crow’s release. Touring became a completely new experience for both parties. “It’s been a gift for me to luck into a great band” he said with tangible enthusiasm. “We’ve grown together as a group. I play for audiences that know bluegrass and audiences that don’t, and they are always blown away by the Rangers.” Their sound complements Martin’s music perfectly, and the easy combination of personalities gives this project real prospects.

An Evening of Bluegrass and Comedy with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
8pm, Saturday, June 2
nTelos Wireless Pavilion

From the Rangers’ perspective, connecting with Steve Martin has been just as meaningful. Lead singer Woody Platt said they are feeling “like a new band,” even after 10 years of touring. “Learning from one of the greatest entertainers in the world has given us a new energy and confidence.” It’s also given them new opportunities, like being drafted as the band for Martin’s latest release, Rare Bird Alert. While The Crow is a wonderful collection of songs and musicians, the new album showcases a finely tuned band, striking a careful balance between Martin’s banjo, his songs, and the Rangers’ heavy musical prowess. “The Rangers are really coming on strong,” Martin said, representing tradition but also originality.

It’s no surprise that this mutual admiration has blossomed into a long-standing collaboration. Both the Rangers and Martin exemplify one of the defining characteristics of good bluegrass: To play the music well is to understand it well—the history, the players, the sounds, everything. It’s clear from talking to Martin that this is as meaningful to him as any of his creative pursuits, and it shows in the quality of the music, and more recently, the quality of the live show. Commenting on the current bluegrass landscape, which is reaching more ears than ever before, he expressed admiration for both ends of the spectrum. “It doesn’t matter if it’s under the umbrella of ‘bluegrass’ anymore. I get just as excited when I hear contemporary bluegrass as I do when I hear more traditional styles, and it all points back to the roots of this music.” And that is a good thing. Add Steve Martin’s legendary personality to that musical authenticity, along with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the result is a show that’s expressive and highly entertaining.—Chris Pandolfi

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