Two albums and two years of touring in, and you can't even try to call Steve Martin's public love affair with the banjo and bluegrass a novelty anymore. He may still be better known as an actor, a comedian and maybe even as a writer of plays, novels, novellas and the like, but these days, Martin's best seen as what he's been since he was a kid: a picker writing tunes born of a gentle yet persistent fascination with hardware, tunings and techniques.
Look at the liner notes to this spring's release, Rare Bird Alert — out via Rounder Records — and they're dotted with lines like, "I was fooling around in D tuning," and references to classic yet largely arcane recordings like the fiddle-and-banjo duet that Paul Warren and Earl Scruggs rendered on Flatt & Scruggs' At Carnegie Hall! concert album. To the trained eye, these are all hallmarks of genuine, irremediable banjo geekdom.
Yet as any bluegrass enthusiast knows, bluegrass is, more than anything else, a group music. So when Martin's enthusiasm for picking and singing took an upward turn a couple of years ago, that alone wasn't enough to set him on course. Sure, he contributed a nifty tune and some confident playing to Tony Trischka's award-winning Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, and longtime banjo buddy John McEuen (of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) produced the fine early-2009 project The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, named for the same nifty tune that featured a boatload of 'grass and 'grassy pickers and singers. But as a handful of frowning purists would say, anyone could do that.
No, the real story here — and what will make Martin & Co.'s May 27 appearance at The Woods at Fontenel a bona fide and deeply enjoyable bluegrass experience — is Martin's evolving relationship with his unlikely yet somehow just-right partners: North Carolina's youthful Steep Canyon Rangers.
"Collectively, now, we're a band — Steve and the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band," says Rangers guitarist and lead singer Woody Platt. "But we're still billed as who we are. It's really important to us to maintain that Steep Canyon Rangers identity, and he's incredibly gracious about that."
Indeed, the quintet dropped their sixth release, Deep in the Shade, via Rebel Records not long after they began touring with Martin, and they'll make their own Rounder debut later this year. Martin met them when they'd already been a band for more than half a decade, complete with a strong identity as a group that could sell original but mostly traditional-sounding bluegrass songs to Rascal-riding festival attendees and youthful club audiences alike.
Not surprisingly, then, The Steep Canyon Rangers' relationship with Martin had some of the elements of a courtship, with the latter proposing some serious touring only after a stint that, as Platt laughingly notes, "we found out later was kind of a test." Also not surprisingly, the schedule has plenty of holes that allow Martin to meet other commitments and help the Rangers keep their own voice — not that they don't get plenty of room to do that on their mutual shows, too. "Steve actually leaves the stage to give us a chance to do our thing, and that's always fun," Platt says. "At that point in the show, we've all been featured individually, we've had some dialogue with Steve, so our personalities are already kind of out there. But it says a lot about him and his confidence in us."
But while the Steeps keep their own thing at a steady simmer, there's no doubt it's the synergy they've found in making music with Martin — or, better, that he's found in making music with them — that drives not just the show but the album. Press attention has focused on a couple of high-profile guests (Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks) — not to mention that novelty thing — but ultimately, there are two things that really put Rare Bird Alert on the radar for anyone with an interest in bluegrass, or just in good music.
First, Martin is an undeniably skillful and distinctive songwriter — a job that's harder than it sounds. Whether he's writing lyrics or not, he has a natural ear for a melody, and it takes only one or two listens to recognize a Martin melody for its blend of symmetry and surprise.
Second, this is, as Platt says, a band. Not a star in front of a bunch of hired hands, but a real band, knit together by countless hours of working and playing together. "I think Steve's really validated himself as a musician," Platt says, and he's right. And as a certified banjo geek, Martin is likely as happy with that as with anything he's ever accomplished.