(Used with permission from Roger Gupta, photographer)
“Do you love to…..get small?”
Back in the late 70s when anyone said that, most people in the room would start laughing and usually start reciting the entire comedy album called…. well it was called “Let’s Get Small”. At the time, Steve Martin was mainly a stand-up comic- and he was very funny too. The “Let’s Get Small” album was recorded live at one of his comedy shows and had a little bit of banjo on it, admittedly, it was mostly there as part of comedy bits but it was there nonetheless and he could obviously play it. The album was produced by William McEuen, brother of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band banjoist John McEuen. (William had once famously said to John “If the banjo were any good the Beatles would have used it.”) Inside the album, as sort of an “extra”, there was a very nice photo included showing Steve in a three piece white suit. He did have a giant fish sticking out of the jacket, but it was a great suit nonetheless. I liked him so much that my parents had a three piece white suite made for me too. (Honest. I can show you a picture if you don’t believe me!) Somehow I never felt it necessary to get the fish to stick out of the jacket.
I loved Steve Martin and pretty well memorized all of his comedy bits and some of his musical ones too. In 1981 he released an album that was half comedy and half music- the album was called “The Steve Martin Brothers” and honestly I have no memory at all of the comedy side but the music side I listened to many many many times. The songs had odd and amusing names but they were serious songs for sure. Banana Banjo and Freddie’s Lilt were two of my favorite titles. I listened to them and remembered them for many years.
The years were very good to Steve Martin and he has enjoyed not only a wonderful career in comedy but also is a respected actor, author, art collector and now is a very respected banjo player too. Thanks to the combination of Steve’s love for the banjo and his very successful career, two important things have developed for us fans of Appalachian and Blue Grass music. The first thing is that Steve has started recording music CDs of banjo and vocal music, and the second is that he has set up (and funds straight from his own pocket!) a special award for banjo players who show excellence in their field (which he dubbed with the catchy name of- The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass).
Just to be obtuse, I am going to talk about the second of those two things first. In 2010, Steve Martin announced that he was going to give an annual award to banjo players who showed excellence in the field of banjo playing. Because banjo players might not be getting rich off of their music, Steve decided to give an unrestricted cash prize of $50,000, and a bronze sculpture to one banjo player a year who he and his team of experts decided should get it. Again, this is an award started by and funded by Steve Martin as a way of helping banjo players get a little recognition as actual musicians and to help them financially because professional grade banjos are very costly things and again, banjo players are probably not rolling in money. The first recipient of this award was (one of my favorites!) Noam Pikelney who currently plays with the Punch Brothers. The second recipient was another of my favorites, Sammy Shelor. (When we heard that Sammy had won the prize, we told my daughter who said “Hey I’ve met him. I’ve been in his corn maze.” That’s something you don’t hear every day!) The third recipient was Mark Johnson who invented an interesting style of clawhammer-like playing. Each year so far, Steve has announced the winner of the prize on the David Letterman show and accompanies the recipient on a song and often a comedy gag.
The other thing I mentioned above is that Steve has been recording music CDs for the past few years. Steve has The Steep Canyon Rangers as his “backup” band and has released two very successful CDs with them and tours extensively with them also. 2009’s The Crow was the first of these CDs and it included several new songs (written by Steve Martin) as well as new recordings of the banjo songs that appeared on The Steve Martin Brothers album I mentioned above. The second of these CDs is called Rare Bird Alert and again, the songs are written by Steve Martin and performed by Steve and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Steve has JUST released a third CD with the Rangers and Edie Brickell.
One of the things I have always regretted was that I never got to see Steve Martin in person. Oh I tried over the years but it never happened and then as far as I know, he stopped touring . I had all of his comedy albums (mostly memorized), had watched all of his comedy specials and his serious movies, and read his books (well honestly I did not read his book on the history of art but I did read all of the others) but I had never seen him live. I suppose since I am now a “grown-up”, I had mostly forgotten about the possibility of seeing him live- in fact I had so much forgotten it that I was apparently not even mildly aware that he was to be playing Blacksburg this winter. Despite radio announcements and actual conversations I had apparently been part of, I had no idea he was coming to my town. I was so oblivious to this fact that on Christmas morning when I opened a gift from my daughter, I just stared at the two tickets sitting in an envelope in my hand, not comprehending what I was holding. The family watched silently as it slowly dawned on me that she had just given me two tickets to see Steve Martin live in concert at a venue just two blocks from my house. I was completely surprised. And pleased.
When the day came for the show, my daughter and I entered Burris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus and made our way to our seats. Over the next little while, I was very happy to watch the entire place fill with people. I had been to many events in that room and most of them had not even come close to filling the place. Steve Martin though, he filled the room, and I’ll bet most of the people in there were silently reciting the Let’s Get Small album just like I was.
When he came out, he was wearing a red suit- which he announced during the band introduction- “And I….. am the one wearing the red suit.” Comedy might not be pretty but the suit was nice just the same. I couldn’t help but notice one of his banjos was a custom Nechville banjo (I play one too!), one was his famous old Gibson, one was a new Ome and I didn’t catch what the other two were. Graham Sharp was playing a nice Gibson- there were a lot of nice banjos up on that stage and they all sounded and played differently.
Seeing Steve and the Steep Canyon Rangers play live was fantastic. I was extremely impressed with the fiddle player, Nicky Sanders (truth be told, I am not a huge fan of the instrument, so to say I was extremely impressed by the fiddle player is really saying something!). I was also impressed with the grace that banjo player Graham Sharp handled being the banjo player in the band chosen to back up another banjo player. Sharp is a very fine and interesting player and he was able to support Steve’s playing with backup and then to change gears and step into the spotlight to shine when it was his turn to shine. Graham was at times the butt of a few banjo jokes and he handled them with grace and humor. I think his is the most difficult job in the band and he did it well.
Throughout the night Steve made us all laugh with his humor and self deprecation, gently educated us with his MC banter, complimented the Rangers and kept us hanging on to every note he played, be it traditoinal style clawhammer or three finger bluegrass playing. The night was a wonderful blend of humor and music and….. well, culture.
So, I am happy to say that now I have finally seen Steve Martin perform live and that I have a new appreciation for the music he has recorded with the Steep Canyon Rangers. It was a great concert and a great night. We were not invited to “get small” and we did not all sing The Grandmother Song as we might have done in the 1970s but it hardly mattered. Steve is still funny and is a very good instrumentalist and perhaps more importantly, he is a class act. I had a great time that night and I won’t forget that night for a long time. Part of that might have been the company I was with too though.
This brings us to the listening recommendation part of the program. Today I am recommending the 2009 release The Crow. For me, the album highlights are the songs from that old 1970s album- Pitkin County Turnaround, Freddie’s Lilt, Saga of the Old West, and Banana Banjo. Give it a listen!
The crow [sound recording] / Steve Martin
For those of you curious to read one of his novels, McConnell Library owns:
|Main Collection – Level 3||PS3563.A7293 O25 2010|
|Main Collection – Level 3||PS3563.A7293 U53 2002|
I am not well versed in bluegrass and banjo music. I know the major names, but I could use some help.
Are there other pieces of music that have the same feel and vibe as “Freddie’s Lilt Parts 1 & 2”? I’ve been searching trying to find banjo based music with that melancholy twinge and kind of orchestral backing.
Part of the problem is I don’t even have the vocabulary to help me find it.
In any case, I found this page while searching and was wondering if you had any recommendations.