Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
It’s hard to think of an artist who’s brought more joy to more people, across more generations — and in more ways — than Steve Martin. In the 1970s, he won the hearts of young children for his playful appearances with The Muppets while simultaneously charming legions of older fans with his subversive standup routines. Later, as an actor, he wrote and starred in some of the most memorable comedies (and a few dramas) of all time, while writing books, plays and even a Broadway musical.
Throughout his 50-year career, one constant in Steve Martin’s life has been the banjo. It was a staple of his early standup shows and even fans who only wanted to laugh couldn’t help but marvel at his playing. Over the years, he’s continued to perform and record with country and bluegrass luminaries like Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and others. These days Martin is working on music full-time. He’s just released a stellar bluegrass album he recorded with The Steep Canyon Rangers called (perfectly) The Long-Awaited Album, a record filled with often hilarious story songs and world-class performances.
Martin’s set with The Steep Canyon Rangers at the Tiny Desk was at times thrilling, particularly his opening solo for the song “So Familiar.” But it was also playful, comical and a joy to witness. At the end of the typical three-song performance, the group graciously decided to do one more called “Caroline,” a hilarious, first-person account of how not to handle a breakup.
Set List “So Familiar” “All Night Long” “On The Water” “Caroline”
Musicians Steve Martin (banjo, vocals), Woody Platt (guitar, vocals), Mike Ashworth (percussion), Mike Guggino (mandolin), Charles Humphrey (bass), Graham Sharp (banjo, vocals), Nicky Sanders (fiddle) Credits Producers: Robin Hilton, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Niki Walker, Bronson Arcuri, Alyse Young; Production Assistant: Beck Harlan; Photo: Christina Ascani/NPR.
Martin first picked up the banjo when he was around 17 years of age. Martin has claimed in several interviews and in his memoir, Born Standing Up, that he used to take 33 rpm bluegrass records and slow them down to 16 rpm and tune his banjo down, so the notes would sound the same. Martin was able to pick out each note and perfect his playing.
Martin learned how to play the banjo with help from John McEuen, who later joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. McEuen’s brother later managed Martin as well as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Martin did his stand-up routine opening for the band in the early 1970s. He had the band play on his hit song “King Tut”, being credited as “The Toot Uncommons” (as in Tutankhamun).
The banjo was a staple of Martin’s 1970s stand-up career, and he periodically poked fun at his love for the instrument. On the Comedy Is Not Pretty! album, he included an all-instrumental jam, titled “Drop Thumb Medley”, and played the track on his 1979 concert tour. His final comedy album, The Steve Martin Brothers (1981), featured one side of Martin’s typical stand-up material, with the other side featuring live performances of Steve playing banjo with a bluegrass band.
In 2001, he played banjo on Earl Scruggs‘s remake of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown“. The recording was the winner of the Best Country Instrumental Performancecategory at the Grammy Awards of 2002. In 2008, Martin appeared with the band, In the Minds of the Living, during a show in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
In 2009, Martin released his first all-music album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo with appearances from stars such as Dolly Parton. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2010. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen produced the album.
Martin made his first appearance on The Grand Ole Opry on May 30, 2009. In the American Idol season eight finals, he performed alongside Michael Sarver and Megan Joy in the song “Pretty Flowers”. In June, Martin played banjo along with the Steep Canyon Rangers on A Prairie Home Companion and began a two-month U.S. tour with the Rangers in September, including appearances at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, Carnegie Hall and Benaroya Hall in Seattle. In November, they went on to play at the Royal Festival Hall in London with support from Mary Black. In 2010, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers appeared at the New Orleans Jazzfest, Merlefest Bluegrass Festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, at Bonnaroo Music Festival, at the ROMP Bluegrass Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky, at the Red Butte Garden Concert series and on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland. Martin performed “Jubilation Day” with the Steep Canyon Rangers on The Colbert Report on March 21, 2011, on Conan on May 3, 2011, and on BBC’s The One Show on July 6, 2011. Martin performed a song he wrote called “Me and Paul Revere” in addition to two other songs on the lawn of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, at the “Capitol Fourth Celebration” on July 4, 2011. In 2011, Martin also narrated and appeared in the PBS documentary “Give me the Banjo” chronicling the history of the banjo in America.
Love Has Come for You, a collaboration album with Edie Brickell, was released in April 2013. The two made musical guest appearances on talk shows, such as The View and Late Show with David Letterman, to promote the album. The title track won the Grammy Award for Best American Roots Song. Starting in May 2013, he is touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell throughout the United States. In 2015, Brickell and Martin released So Familiar as the second installment of their partnership. Inspired by Love has Come for You, Martin and Brickell collaborated on his first musical, Bright Star. It is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1945–46, with flashbacks to 1923. The musical debuted on Broadway on March 24, 2016.