Steep Canyon Rangers hit the road with a new album and a special guest in tow

by Ryan Snyder

The new phonebook’s here, the new phonebook’s here and for the foreseeable future, the listing under “Steep Canyon Rangers” ( thesteepcanyonrangers) will include an additional and instantly recognizable name, not that they list bands in the phonebook, mind you. He’s not offering advice on how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes, selling Penis Beauty Cream or juggling kittens, but Gern Blanston, er, Steve Martin will take to the stage another of his most beloved activities: playing the banjo. Through the month of October, he’ll be doing so all across the country alongside the prolific Asheville-based Steep Canyon Rangers, a band that’s emerging as one of the most adored bluegrass acts in their own right. Martin might best be known through his prodigious comedic talents as The Jerk or A Wild and Crazy Guy, but his experience as a bluegrass musician predates even his first role in film or television. He’s already shared a Grammy with bluegrass great Earl Scruggs for a 2002 instrumental performance, but Martin’s picking days go back well over 40 years.

“There’s hardly been a movie set where his banjo wasn’t in his trailer,” said Steep Canyon fiddle player Nicky Sanders. “He has a really different style of banjo playing that’s all his own, but you can tell that it’s inspired by Scruggs.” The Rangers met the comedian through a mutual friend when he was invited to come and perform a few songs at the 2008 Mountain Song festival in Brevard, NC, a yearly festival put on by the Steep Canyon Rangers that was recently expanded to include an additional day. Sanders says that the audience was taken completely by surprise when Martin appeared on stage with them, as the collaboration led to several other performances over the next year and finally, the tour together this October.

Martin will also make an appearance with the Rangers at this year’s Mountain Song festival, happening Sept. 11and 12 at Brevard’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, which will includeanother prominent bluegrass figure, legendary mandolinist DavidGrisman. Even though the tour will officially begin just before the release of the Steep Canyon Rangers’ fourth album, Deep in the Shade, onOct. 6, it is Martin’s name that will appear atop the marquee. HisJanuary release, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, remainsthe backbone for the tour, though the Rangers will also serve as theopening act for several of the dates in addition to having severalsongs mid-set. While Martin’s material is described by Sandersas light-hearted and quirky, he calls the Rangers’ new material abalanced mix of traditional bluegrass and Americana, along with beingsome of their darkest work to date. “It’s sort of the ideal record forthe economic downturn, and there’s a real dark timbre to the lyriccontent,” said Sanders. “We tried to keep the delivery verytraditional, so it ends up sounding traditional even though all of thatmaterial is original.” With songs like the lament on theeconomy “There Ain’t No Easy Street,” the copacetic “Turn Up theBottle” and a cover of Merle Haggard’s heartbreak special “I Must BeSomebody Else You’ve Known,” the album’s nature opposes Martin’sinherent comedic tendencies. While Martin won’t exactly be performingwith an arrow through his head or twisting balloons intorepresentations of venereal diseases, Sanders says that his merepresence is enough to create laughs. “Every time the man openshis mouth, something really wry and hilarious comes out,” Sanders said.“The between-song banter at the few shows we’ve played has been reallygreat.”

Asheville’s Steep Canyon Rangers will back actor Steve Martin during his upcoming bluesgrass tour, in addition to hosting their own festival in September.