August 3, 2011

Steve Martin on the banjo and the Kama Sutra

On Saturday night at Rocky Grass, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers entertained the audience with a mixture of bluegrass and banter. Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers took the Rocky Grass stage between sets from Psychograss and Hot Rize. (Hot Rize fittingly played Steve Martin’s 2007 wedding to writer Anne Stringfield).

His performance was not about selling music or stand-up comedy- it was about both. Martin was following his passion, drinking a long neck on stage in front of a sold out lawn, playing the banjo and singing bad poetry. Martin’s career questions whether we are engaging all of our passions- challenging our creativity and engaging our inner artist.

Steve Martin is a stand-up comedian, actor, art collector/lover, lover, novelist and screenplay writer, and a blue grass musician. Martin has enjoyed a personal exploration of the arts, from The Jerk (1979) with a dog named Shithead, to his multi decade love for the banjo.  His album, The Crow (2010), won a Grammy for the best bluegrass album of the year.

Support for the polymath Martin
Late in 2010 Martin appeared at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan; where he and his interviewer were criticized for speaking about Martin’s passion for art. The Y interview followed shortly after Martin’s publication of An Object of Beauty, a novel which explores the New York art world. The NYT subsequently referred to the Y interview as “disappointing”- a harsh word in the art world and for any novelist. But the criticism by the 92nd Street Y crowd was not levelled at the novel, rather that Martin and his interviewer (Deborah Solomon, a writer for the NYT magazine), were too focused on Martin the novelist and the audience wanted to hear from about Martin the comedian and actor. So much for the Y’s audience support for polymaths like Steve Martin.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at Rocky Grass
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Ragners closed their set with King Tut, arranged for bluegrass on Martin’s Rare Bird Alert album. “King Tut” was originally performed by the Toot Uncommons (the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) on Saturday Night Live in 1978. The RockyGrass audience would have enjoyed Martin reading from his An Object of Beauty or his poetry. The multifaceted Martin was entertaining, with a banjo in one hand and beer in the other.

Steve Martin on poetry and the Kama Sutra

On poetry

Bad poetry, makes good country songs.
Rather than pay Gary Scruggs royalties I wrote my own song.
I wrote “Daddy Played the Banjo”, sung by Steep Canyon Rangers’ Woody Plat.

On camaraderie and travel
Steep Canyon Rangers ask “Why a music career, why now?”
I get to travel with you guys, enjoy your company on the road and tell stories.
Or so I have been told.  I travel on my own private jet.

On his place on stage
The Steep Canyon Rangers are not Martin’s band, I am  their celebrity.

On love
“Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back”, a Steve Martin love song.  The lyrics of course:
“Go away.”
“Turn around.”
“Come back.”
(In this love song, Martin is singing backup, “silently with his eyes, but just a little flat”- from his liner notes)

On Breakup Songs
According to Martin’s breakup song, “Not all breakups are sad. Some bring an infusion of oxygen, spring and wonder, a thrill as uplifting as any helicopter take off note”.  Martin sings the song, as the lyrics suggest the singer has seen a shrink, certainly not the profile of singers from North Carolina.

On pot and bluegrass
Our upright bass double as a fridge, but bluegrass has no drummer, so no pot.  Martin is handed a beer from the upright bass and exits to Google himself as the Steep Canyon Rangers play solo for a few numbers during his beer break.

The economics of entertainment
Two of my favorite things to do are comedy and charging people for music.
He wanted to honor Flatt and Scruggs, but did not want to pay royalties, so he wrote his own song.

On his popularity as a banjo player
The Crow and Rare Bird Alert went to number one on the bluegrass chart and number 10,277 on the popular chart.

The Kama sutra and banjo
There are two popular styles to play the banjo: the three finger and the clawhammer style (it uses the thumb, middle or index finger and the back of a fingernail). The clawhammer is a Kama Sutra position, but more evocative and emotional.

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