The Steep Canyon Rangers are bluegrass traditionalists — good ol' boy pickers from Asheville, N.C., and oft-acclaimed players for their dedication to vintage strings and the classic country sound. The young band (relatively speaking for a genre populated with old timers) is a two-time International Bluegrass Award winner, and it has graced the Grand Ole Opry stage.
Then there is Steve Martin, the comedian who has novelty-banjo-picked his way from stage to television to film to become a fixture in the funny business for four decades. On essential comedy albums like 1977's Let's Get Small, Martin's impressive banjo skills were as much a part of his routine as rubber arrows through the head and balloon hats. And while many celebrities get burned trying to turn in acting chops for a music career (Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon, Eddie Murphy), Martin, on his 2009 release The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo, tucks in his funny bone to reveal his unabashed love for the instrument, and it truly shines. Accompanied by famed players including Earl Scruggs and Vince Gill, country superstar Dolly Parton and a host of others, the album earned Martin the 2010 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Martin's recent alliance with the Rangers finds the fast fretters embodying the family-band unit from which bluegrass groups were once founded — trading jokes and jabs on stage with bright, rollicking finger-picking, and of course, dueling banjoes.
The Rangers' latest release, Deep in the Shade (Rebel), features soaring harmonies and razor-sharp, lightning-hot picking. Martin penned the liner notes for his new tour mates, writing his first memories of the band: "They came over and slowly broke out their instruments and soon I was struggling to keep up, though being nice Carolina boys, they would never say, 'That was the wrong chord, Steve.' Woody's big guitar, Graham's smart banjo, Mike's delicious mandolin, Nicky's amazing fiddle and Charles' hot bass let me know pretty quickly that I was playing along with one of the great new bands in the bluegrass world." Martin also adds, "Even though you haven't heard this music before, it seems like you have." — Alex Woodward
Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers
3:35 p.m. Thursday, April 29, Gentilly Stage