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The Martin Effect

Setting the stage for a bluegrass revival?

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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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 Fifteenth Anniversary 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. 

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