‘There’s a million ways to be inspired’

Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers

Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Steve Martin and his wife, Anne Stringfield, sat in a small venue in New York City called Joe’s Pub.

Martin had released his bluegrass album “The Crow,” but that was mostly a solo album, although it featured several famous musicians. He didn’t expect the band playing onstage — one that his wife had known since before their marriage — to ask him to join them.

But that’s just what the band members did.

So he went backstage and practiced a bit with the band, the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Martin said he kept thinking, “This song has never sounded this good before.”

And when it came time for him to choose a band to tour with, the Steep Canyon Rangers stuck out in his mind. He worried his joining would damage their reputation in the world of bluegrass, as Martin had focused primarily in recent years on the comedy and acting for which he is most known. As it turned out, though, his joining “doubled the size of their audience.”

As part of their current tour, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers will be performing a bluegrass show at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. It will be Martin’s first Chautauqua experience.

“The show we do is not a comedian who goes out, turns his back on the audience, and plays 20 songs in a row and then says, ‘Good night,’” Martin said in a teleconference held June 9.

He said some of the songs might be inherently humorous, but the members of the band are still serious musicians.

Aside from music and comedy, Martin is also an accomplished playwright and novelist. Though he has many talents, he said there are people better than him in each skill. Before joining the Steep Canyon Rangers, he said, he had to “practice like mad.”

“I hadn’t done a stage show in 25 years, and I had never done a stage show of music,” he said. “But I think, certainly, I had to prove myself to them, and I had to prove myself to myself, you know, of whether I could do it.”

The first performance was for a crowd of 60 people; he said he couldn’t take his eyes off his banjo because of his nerves. Now, though, he said he feels more like a professional musician.

Martin said he plays an arrogant Hollywood idiot on stage, while the rest of the band plays modest North Carolinians. It’s all in good fun, he said, and it’s the basis of their comedic relationship on stage.

He said he chose the banjo when he was in his teens because of its unique sound. Folk music stars like the Kingston Trio and Earl Scruggs turned him on to the banjo.

“The banjo sounds to me like it comes from a place,” he said. “Like it comes from a locale. Like it comes from America. And, you know, I can tell sometimes that the audience almost gets inadvertently moved by — not by my playing, but by the sound of the banjo. I’d like to think that sort of runs through Americans’ DNA, you know?”

He said that his work in bluegrass seems to be inspiring interest in bluegrass. It wasn’t his intention, but the record’s been selling well, so he think it’s happening accidentally.

Martin views himself as a writer, musician and comedian — he doesn’t give himself just one title. He said each aspect comes together under an “umbrella of creativity,” adding that inspiration comes to him in many ways.

“Sometimes, there’s a million ways to be inspired,” Martin said. “For example, playing the banjo and making a mistake, hitting the chord and going, ‘That sounded good, what was that? I’ve never heard that before.’ Sometimes, you’re inspired by deadline. It’s mostly just letting your mind wander and finding something fresh that you never thought of before.”