by Paige Parham
“If you’re not enjoying the show so far… you’re wrong.” – Steve Martin
Although you probably know him best for his acting, writing and stand-up comedy, Steve Martin is fast becoming a superstar of the bluegrass scene. Martin brought his friends The Steep Canyon Rangers to Robinson Center Music Hall last night and delighted fans young and old with his fast-picking banjo playing and witty banter. Having taught himself to play the banjo at age 17 by playing along with slowed-down LPs, Martin has proved himself to be more than just an actor with musical aspirations. He’s also truly talented musician.
Before beginning the first song, Martin explained that he first met the Steep Canyon Rangers at a house party in North Carolina. He’d heard that there would be a local band at the party and was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only were they good, they were just what he needed to help him fulfill him dreams of touring with a bluegrass band. From their on-stage rapport, it’s obvious that these guys are having a great time on the road. Martin and the Rangers last year won the award for Entertainers of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association and are consistently at the top of the bluegrass charts with their most recent album, “Rare Bird Alert.”
The audience at Robinson was livelier than I have seen in years. People clapped along, hollered for more, and sang along with Martin’s popular a capella “hymn” for the non-religious, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” which has been a hit on You Tube since its premiere in 2010. Part of Martin’s charm as a performer is his innate storytelling ability. He prefaced most songs by explaining how or when he wrote it, and in several instances, gave the crowd insight into the private life of a very private man. My favorite of his songs is the plaintive, melancholy “The Great Remember,” which he played solo while the band took a well-deserved break. While he joked about making his agent nervous with his desire to go on tour with his banjo, there is a lot to be said for following one’s dreams. Martin is obviously having the time of his life branching out into the world of bluegrass music. It’s undeniable that he has a showman’s personality and that people would happily gather ’round to hear whatever he plans on putting out there. The world loves a clown, and it was obvious from the crowd’s response that they also love a “wild and crazy guy.”
After playing their purported last song, the musicians returned to the stage for one encore – a new composition called “Me and Paul Revere,” which was written from the point of perspective of Revere’s horse. The Rangers’ amazing fiddle player Nicky Sanders wowed the crowd by making his strings sing – slipping in teases of “Norwegian Wood,” “Live and Let Die,” and several other popular songs, which the audience went crazy for. When the musicians finally cleared the stage after several standing ovations, the crowd filed out with smiles on their faces and toes still tappin’. It was a good day to be bluegrass fan in Central Arkansas, and I think we were just the kind of audience that Martin expected us to be.