Wild and Crazy Bluegrass Guy: Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers

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On March 3, we saw Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at Virginia Tech’s Burruss Auditorium. We’re already big fans of the Steeps — we first saw them at Rhythm and Roots in Bristol and catch their shows any time they are close by or in a festival line up. They recently won a Grammy for Nobody Knows You and then took off to record new material at Levon Helm’s studio in New York.

Steve Martin is immensely talented. He can do most anything. Everyone knows him from the early days of Saturday Night Live and King Tut fame. And he’s a major movie and TV star. My husband introduced me to some of Martin’s early movies, like “The Jerk.” I’ve been drawn to his writing – he’s published novels, plays, essays, contributes to magazines and done just about everything else. I highly recommend his book “Pure Drivel” if you need a good laugh (and who doesn’t?!) Now, he’s seriously exploring bluegrass music by writing, recording and touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

When Steve and the Steeps started touring, their act moved into my concert bucket list. Steep Canyon Rangers’ tight harmony and Steve Martin’s witty humor? Yes, please! Burruss Auditorium was packed with college students, and bluegrass fans both young and old. We had my mom and our son for a three generation show – kinda like old days at Merlefest.

Billed as an evening of comedy and bluegrass, they played several songs from Martin’s Grammy-winning album The Crow. From Rare Bird Alert, they did Jubilation Day — a happy break-up song. Martin talked about how Earl Scruggs music influenced him from a young age. It was the Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall album that hooked him. He plays both Scruggs style banjo and claw hammer or old-time style.

Members of the Steep Canyon Rangers gamely played straight men to Martin’s jokes. At one point, he said they should play until it’s no longer fun … and the band looks at him and walks off the stage! He later gave the stage to SCR so the audience could see what an excellent bluegrass group they are. The SCR lineup is Woody Platt on guitar, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Graham Sharp on banjo, and Charles Humphrey III on bass. And if you couldn’t guess, Martin is the guy in the bright red suit.

“I Can’t Sit Down” showcased the harmonies they are known for and the audience loved it. Martin returned to the stage, passed out single sheets of paper he described as the Atheist hymnal and then they belted out the a capella (and hysterical) Martin composition Atheists Don’t Have no Songs, written with Graham Sharp and Woody Platt.

Other songs included Daddy Played the Banjo, a tune Martin wrote with Earl Scruggs’ son. Martin plays homage to the classic bluegrass genres of songs about love, family and even murder, but often with a twist. His classic love song is Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back and in his murder ballad, Pretty Little One, the pretty little one ends up ends up killing him.

Paul Revere is Martin’s patriotic song, written from the viewpoint of Revere’s horse. He talked about playing bluegrass on the Capitol Lawn for America’s Independence Day celebration and playing for President Barack Obama. “Playing the banjo at the White House, for the President of the United States, had to be one of the great thrills of his life,” Martin deadpanned.

Steve Martin has another album out Love Has Come for You, which is a collaboration with Edie Brickell and they will be touring with Steep Canyon Rangers this summer, including a show on June 24 in northern Virginia at the famed Wolf Trap. So hit the road and see them in person. There’s nothing like a beautiful night outdoors with sweet music in the air.

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