Last year, a bluegrass musician took America by storm. A liberal Democrat by political persuasion, he’s had a storied career as a comedian, actor, and author/playwright. He also just might be the one person who can help bluegrass music reach greater heights and a wider audience. Who is it? Steve Martin.
At January’s Grammy Awards, Martin won Best Bluegrass Album for The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. It’s his second musical Grammy: In 2002, he was part of a supergroup that won for Best Country Instrumental Performance with their version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Yet this award was the crown jewel in an incredible musical year for Martin, who has been playing the banjo for 45 years. Earlier, he was named Billboard Music’s Bluegrass Artist of the Year and earned Bluegrass Album of the Year. The Crow was ranked number one on Billboard for half of 2009, and was still number three this past July. Martin was also nominated for six International Bluegrass Awards.
When he was invited to play on bluegrass musician Tony Trischka’s album Double Banjo BluegrassSpectacular, released in 2007, Martin said that there were “at least 500 banjo players better than me that could score on traditional tunes.” Perhaps—but the 501st-best banjo player has the talent and personality to attract legions of new fans to come along for the ride.
I wasn’t one of them, since I was already a fan. In all likelihood, I’m one of the most unusual individuals to have become a faithful follower of the bluegrass sound. That is, unless you know of other Jewish-born, nonreligious, politically and socially conservative, urbanite Canadian bluegrass fans. If so, I stand corrected. Briefly, my musical tastes have always leaned on the slightly schizophrenic side: I primarily listen to jazz and classical music, and my contemporary tastes veer toward heavy metal and alternative. But when it comes to country music, while I like some—Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama—I’ve never been a fan. And don’t get me started on that distasteful sound known as New Country.
Bluegrass is different. I love its beautiful simplicity, including the upbeat tempos, melodic harmonies, acoustic merriment, and poignant lyrics. It’s a unique subgenre of country music, established in the 1940s, with healthy dashes of roots music (including gospel and old time), Scottish and Irish sounds, as well as the occasional tantalizing hint of jazz and blues tucked in. Unlike their country cousins, bluegrass performers use acoustic instruments with strings such as the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and resonator guitar to create rich, robust, and boisterous sounds.
Some of the original bluegrass performers include Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and their group, the Foggy Mountain Boys; the Osborne Brothers; Jimmy Martin; and the “father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. (Monroe once said jokingly, “Bluegrass is wonderful music. I’m glad I originated it.”) Neil V. Rosenberg, in Bluegrass: A History, examined Monroe’s successful run during 1946-49:
He played as far west as Oklahoma, as far north as Ontario, Canada, and he developed a strong following in the upper South and adjacent mid-western and mid-Atlantic states. His tours were enlivened by the baseball team which by 1949 had become so popular that he created a second club and was hiring professional players. His records were played frequently on jukeboxes and sold well at record stores. His most popular songs were “covered” or copied by a host of other performers, including popular contemporaries like Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys and venerable old-timers like Bradley Kincaid. He began these years with a band still remembered as his best, one which brought his musical ideals closer to realization than any previous band. Indeed the sound of this particular team of Blue Grass Boys was so popular and familiar that by 1948 other groups were copying it even when they were not playing Bill’s songs.
But it wasn’t just Monroe who was able to popularize bluegrass tunes. Flatt and Scruggs wrote popular theme songs for The Beverly Hillbillies (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”) and Petticoat Junction. Movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Deliverance, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have exposed people to bluegrass, old time, and gospel songs. And acclaimed bluegrass albums by 26-time Grammy-winner Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton (she won a 2001 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album) have captured the public’s imagination.
Like most musical styles, bluegrass has experienced many transformations since its inception. Most performers still fit within the three major subcategories: traditional (classic, country-like sound with acoustic instruments), progressive (sometimes called “newgrass,” with electric sounds and hints of rock music), and gospel. Neo-traditional bluegrass bands are currently on the rise. (A Chinese quartet, Red Chamber, uses traditional Chinese instruments in a great album appropriately entitled Redgrass.)
Today’s bluegrass is also well served by its current crop of participants. Thanks to Rounder Records, which specializes in roots music such as bluegrass, and its project manager, Amy Gaudreau, I was able to get a good sampling. I already knew of The Grascals, a talented six-piece outfit with one of America’s best banjo players, Kristin Scott Benson. Their second album, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s, is superb: Take a listen to their version of “Last Train to Clarksville,” which makes The Monkees’ original sound like a garage band cover, and their stunning rendition of “Son of a Sawmill Man.” Summertown Road’s excellent self-titled debut album combines traditional sounds with a folksy modern feel. Some standout tracks include “If I Win,” “Too Much of a Good Thing,” and, inspired by their home state, “That’s Kentucky.” Blue Highway’s Some Day: The FifteenthAnniversary Collection is a perfect accompaniment to the multiple Grammy-nominated bluegrass band’s incredible career, including the tracks “Marbletown” and “Seven Sundays in a Row.”
Yet the pièce de résistance from Rounder’s bag of goodies is Steve Martin’s album. In many ways, it’s the culmination of a long musical journey: Some of his songs were written over 40 years ago, and a small handful (including “Hoedown at Alice’s,” “Freddie’s Lilt,” and “Banana Banjo”) appeared in rudimentary form on his 1981 comedy album, The Steve Martin Brothers. This incredible effort, hilariously summarized in the liner notes as “the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe and that includes possible alternative universes, too,” is a musical triumph.
It’s nearly impossible to describe how stunning The Crow is: There isn’t a weak track on the entire album. Many songs, including “Daddy Played the Banjo,” “Pitkin County Turnaround,” “Wally on the Run,” and “The Crow” epitomize the traditional bluegrass sound with a stunning banjo backdrop. The 86-year-old Scruggs plays on two tracks, including one that features Vince Gill and Dolly Parton on vocals. A comedy/bluegrass track, “Late For School,” is Martin’s only singing performance.
The Crow’s success could have a bigger impact for bluegrass than either the Deliverance or O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtracks. As a successful comic/actor known throughout the world (and possible alternative universes), Steve Martin could bring new fans to bluegrass music from across North America and beyond. As a liberal he could help ease snobbery and distaste for Southern-inspired/religious-themed music in certain circles, and as a great banjo player he could show that talent, hard work, and love of music can ultimately lead to great success and critical acclaim.
“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” Steve Martin has said, repeating a declaration made by many others. He needs to dance less like Frank Gehry or Frank Lloyd Wright and talk more like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. And if he does, the unlikeliest person ever to have become an award-winning musician will help bluegrass become one of the defining musical styles of our generation.
Michael Taube is a writer in Toronto.