There's nothing funny about the banjo, but when the hands on the fretboard belong to Steve Martin, bluegrass gets a humor infusion -- and a Brevard, N.C., band gets a trip around the world.
The Steep Canyon Rangers connected with Martin through his wife, Anne, a writer for The New York Times. Anne befriended the band, letting them crash at her N.Y.C. apartment a few times before her 2007 marriage to Martin. "She got us together, one thing led to another, until we've been doing this thing for going on three years now," says Rangers banjoist Graham Sharp, phoning in from his Asheville home.
When Martin put out his Grammy-winning banjo-centric release The Crow in '09, the Rangers learned a handful of his original songs from the record, inviting Martin to guest at their annual festival in Brevard with them backing him. "It was the first time he had really been performing on stage in 30 years," Sharp says. "He wanted to see if onstage playing music was something he even wanted to do."
Pleased with the initial effort, Martin played a few more shows with the band before booking an international tour. The Rangers co-released Rare Bird Alert with Martin last March for their Rounder Records debut.
Martin's high profile in the entertainment business certainly boosted the Rangers' musical profile, but the band collected accolades and awards for years on their own. The International Bluegrass Music Association awarded the band Emerging Bluegrass Band in '06, and every member of the band was nominated for IBMA's Instrumentalist of the Year in '07. The band was nominated for IBMA's Best Album and Gospel Performance of the Year in '08, taking home IBMA's Entertainer of the Year award last September. Rare Bird Alert is nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album this year.
What makes the band's success all the more remarkable is the late bluegrass start of two members. Sharp, who played sax in Greensboro's Grimsley High Jazz Band, switched to banjo after being laid up with knee surgery from a soccer injury while at UNC. Guitarist Woody Platt, who grew up surrounded by the music in Brevard, had little interest in bluegrass till he was exposed to it while at UNC. The two put the band together and started playing around Chapel Hill in the late '90s, putting out their self-released debut, Old Dreams and New Dreams, in '01.
Despite his level of musicianship and performing experience in a variety of mediums, Sharp says Martin has been deferential to the band. "He had never played as part of a band before, so he felt like he was learning how to play in a group," Sharp says. "For the first little while, he was really looking to us and trying to remember all the arrangements, leaning on our experience as a band."
For Sharp, whose generation doesn't know Martin as a stand-up comic with rock star status, filling arenas when he toured with his comedy in the '70s, the relationship with Martin is based primarily on music. "I had read his autobiography, Born Standing Up, which I loved, but had also listened to The Crow and really admired him as a banjo player and a composer," Sharp says.
Martin brings his original tunes, fully formed, to the band for arranging. "We have all approached it as a mutual relationship, a very collaborative one, there's a lot of give and take between everybody," Sharp adds.
Martin's comedy in the show was low-key at first. "In this show, the banjo came first. The first six months of shows, the focus was really on the tunes, and once that started getting more comfortable and familiar, the comedy started creepin' in," Sharp says. "Now there's probably as much comedy in the show as there is music."
"Jubilation Day," from Rare Bird Alert, features Martin's acerbic wit at its sharpest. "The sex was great," Martin tells his ex-beloved, as the Rangers burble along smoothly behind him. "At least that's what my best friend's brother said."
Martin's rap/funk hit "King Tut" has also been redone bluegrass style. "We worked it up ourselves just to have it, then we brought it to rehearsal with him one day and he was surprised to see that he could play the banjo along with that tune," Sharp says.
Sharp sees Martin as a bluegrass ambassador. "He's done a lot to put the music out in front of people and always present it in not a Deliverance / Hee-Haw hokey type of way," Sharp says. "He wants it to be something that's funny, but not like playing to all the stereotypes of banjo."
Steep CAnyon Rangers
$12-$15. Jan. 21. 7 p.m. McCelvey Center, York, S.C.