It’s been great to see the tremendous interest in Steve Martin’s upcoming banjo CD within the overlapping banjo and bluegrass communities.
Martin has been a banjo picker since before he made it big, first as a comedian and later as a film actor, author and playwright. When I was first learning to play banjo in the mid-1970s, Martin’s comedy act was in its hey day. Though he used the banjo primarily as a prop in his show, he always played seriously and gave the old five string a renewed visibility in the pop culture.
The final (December 2008) online issue of Bluegrassnow.com had a lengthy article about the CD, written by IBMA’s Nancy Cardwell. She takes us into the studio while the CD, The Crow, was being recorded, talks with producer John McEuen, and reports on the goings on when she was there.
“John McEuen invited me over to the studio for a couple of days in October, when he and Steve were in town to work on the record. Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Earl & Gary Scruggs, Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas were there, also.
The songs I heard so far are great–looking forward to hearing the whole CD soon.”
Nancy also provides a good bit of background on Steve’s discovery of the banjo, which he did along with McEuen, a childhood friend.
John and Steve met each other the summer before their senior year at Garden Gate High School. “We used to play chess every lunch period,” John said. “There wasn’t a whole lot to the conversation other than ‚Äòcheck’ and ‚Äòcheckmate.’ I think I said ‚Äòcheckmate’ more often,” he added, laughing. “We worked at Disneyland and sometimes would play chess by telephone, from two different stores, when business was slow.”
They heard the banjo live for the first time in 1964, when John’s older brother, Bill, invited Dave Simpson from McCabe’s Guitar Shop over to the McEuen house. Dave knew four songs: “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”; “Hard, Ain’t It Hard”; “Jesse James” and part of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Martin scraped together $200 and bought a banjo from Simpson‚Äîan open-back Gibson RB170.
“Around that time period I saw the Dillards for the first time,” John continued, “which got me started for real. We both acquired banjos‚Ä¶ Steve would come over to my house after school and I’d show him some lick I had learned, and he’d take it from there. Even in the early days, he was able to take some technique and come up with his own songs. He started doing that in the early ‚Äò70s. Both of us liked frailing and three-finger style. In fact, Steve is one of the sweetest frailers I know‚Äîhe’s very sensitive and he has a light touch.”
Read the full piece online.