Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers played at the Ryman Auditorium last night in Nashville. Steve said, “It’s been a long-time dream of mine to do a banjo show at the Ryman Auditorium. Tonight I feel I’m one step closer to that goal.”
John McEuen opened the show with a solo set. He walked on stage with no introduction after the house lights dimmed and said, “Hi, I’m Steve Martin. It’s been a rough year.” The most fun part of his set, for me, was when the entire audience sang (very loudly) the verses of the “Ballad of Jed Clampett” (a.k.a. The Beverly Hillbillies) with only slight prompting from John. Everybody was very into it.
It was obvious, though, after intermission, what everyone was waiting for. In the extended pause between when the house lights again dimmed and when the band entered the stage the guy next to me started clapping. Soon the whole audience was clapping in time, which escalated into thunderous applause as Steve and the Rangers approached the mics.
The whole show, from start to finish, was top-notch. Steve demonstrated his love and respect for the banjo and for bluegrass, while simultaneously managing to convey his excitement at actually getting to go on tour playing banjo. He also displayed a canny understanding of the bluegrass touring business: “If all goes according to plan, I’ll only lose $12,000.”
All the songs they performed were Steve’s originals, with the exception of the two that the Steep Canyon Rangers got to do solo: “Turn Up The Bottle” (from their new CD Deep In The Shade) and the a cappella “I Can’t Sit Down”, which the crowd absolutely loved.
Some of Steve’s remarks indicated that this was not your average bluegrass show, and signaled his awareness that many people in attendance may not be typical bluegrass fans. For one thing, Steve actually explained his tuner. Like many musicians now days, he had a clip-on tuner on his headstock. In between songs he told the audience what it was (something it would never occur to a bluegrass band to do) and added, “I can also check my email.”
In introducing “Pretty Flowers” Steve told how the song starting out as an attempt at bad poetry. About a year after he wrote it he took it out again and thought, “That might be some bad poetry, but it’s not a bad country song.” The Nashville audience absolutely howled at that one. Rhonda Vincent and Dan Tyminski joined him on stage to sing the lovely duet.
They made quite a joke out of Charles Humphrey’s bass. Steve remarked early in the show that they liked traveling with the Charles because his bass doubles as a refrigerator. At first I thought he was just making a joke about how big the bass is. But a little later, when Steve was about to leave the stage to let SCR do their songs he made the seemingly off-hand question, “Hey Charles, you got a nanner or something?” To the audience’s surprise Charles turned around the bass, took a panel off the back, reached inside and took out a banana to hand to Steve. (This bit was made possible by the amazing folding bass, designed by Charlie Chadwick.)
Steve explained to the audience how he liked to give his tunes names based on real-life experience. One, for example, was named by his wife. It was called “Don’t You Know Any Other Songs But That One.” Another true-to-life title, and one that demonstrates that Steve doesn’t come from the typical bluegrass background, was, “I Think My Masseuse Is Too Chatty.” But, he said, Rounder Records didn’t think that title was “bluegrassy enough,” so he called it “The Crow.” (All in good fun, of course.)
Nicky Saunders, SCR’s fiddler joined Steve to do a fiddle-banjo tune. In introducing it Steve talked about Flatt and Scruggs’s Carnegie Hall album, which received a smattering of applause. Then he said he’d always liked the tune on there called “Fiddle and Banjo.” At this point I clapped, but no one else did. Solo applause. Lovely. Anyway, Steve’s tune was called “Hide Behind A Rock.” It is, incidentally, nothing like “Fiddle and Banjo.”
He and Graham Sharp did a funny little bit. It’s gotta be weird for Graham, playing second banjo in the band. After the tune “Tin Roof,” on which Graham took a great break, Steve came up to the mic and complimented him on it. He said, in fact, it was “a little too good, if you know what I mean.” He asked Graham to demonstrate a typical lick he might play on a song and Graham does this long, notey phrase from the bottom of the neck up to the very top frets. Steve says, “Yeah, take out half those notes.” So Graham plays a simpler, bluesier lick that is just as awesome. So Steve comes back with, “Now take out a lot of those notes.” Graham plays his third string, really loudly. “Perfect,” Steve says.
The first encore was “Orange Blossom Special,” which has always been one of Nicky’s showpieces. I was a little surprised at the choice of song, since typically the banjo doesn’t have much of a role (no pun intended) on that tune. But as the arrangement unfolded I understood. The Rangers sang first line of the verses (Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, and Graham on the trio)—“Look yonder comin’”—and then Steve popped into the mic to finish the phrase, “Comin’ down the railroad track.” “It’s the Orange Blossom Special,” the boys sang. “Bringin my baby back,” Steve answered.
Boys: “I’m going down to Florida”
Steve: “Get some sand in my shoes.”
Boys: “Or maybe California”
Steve: “King Tut” (winces as he realizes he’s sung the wrong words…)
Boys: “Ride the Orange Blossom Special”
Steve: “And lose these Nashville blues.”
The pinnacle of the show, though, was the second encore when Steve called on stage John McEuen, Gary Scruggs, and the man himself (do I really need to say it?) Earl Scruggs. Long standing ovation from the hometown crowd. They played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” (Was there ever any doubt was tune they’d do?) and although it was very hard to hear Earl it almost didn’t matter. Just seeing him play is magic in itself. (I did say almost.)
I’m just so glad that Steve is touring with the Rangers. He met them in North Carolina (his wife is a friend of Woody’s) (though when they play in Hollywood he says he met them “in rehab”) and he couldn’t have picked a better bunch of guys to accompany him. He is very respectful of them as a band, as musicians, and as individuals, making sure to specifically introduce everyone and to have a little interaction with each of them so that the audience gets to know them a little bit.
Steve Martin may not be the world’s best banjo player (which is so subjective a title as to be impossible to quantify—and as long as Earl is with us there’s no contest anyway) but he may well be the funniest. I think that Uncle Dave Macon would approve.