Although he played banjo in stand-up routines as far back as the 1970s, Steve Martin's status as one of bluegrass, old-time and folk music's most visible supporters has taken shape in the 21st century.
"The reason I played it on stage is because my act was so crazy I thought it's probably good to show the audience I can do something that looks hard, because this act looks like I'm just making it up. I really wasn't. I worked very hard on it," Martin told ABC News in 2011.
Before diving into Martin's recent bluegrass bonafides, it's worth noting that perhaps his first display of banjo virtuosity (on a national stage, at least) came when he worked as a writer from 1969 to 1972 for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. On an early episode, Campbell and Martin joined fellow writer and "Glassical Gas" performer Mason Williams, Bill Monroe bandmate turned Campbell collaborator Don Lineberger, another hilarious picker in Roni Stoneman and the writer of Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind," John Hartford, for a version of "Cripple Creek."
Eventually, stand-up comedy, Saturday Night Live and such comedy film classics as The Jerk defined Martin more so than music.
That would change starting in November 2001, when Martin took part in another all-star jam on network television. Martin got to play banjo alongside Earl Scruggs on The Late Show With David Letterman. Martin and Scruggs were joined by Sruggs' sons Randy (acoustic guitar) and Gary (harmonica) plus an all-star lineup including Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell for a rendition of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Each collaborator shares a 2002 Grammy (Best Country Instrumental Performance) for a studio version of the same song.
The once-in-a-lifetime jam session introduced Martin's talent to a wider audience and preceded his deeper dive into bluegrass.
Martin's first album of music, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, was issued by Rounder in 2009. What some might have wrote off as a novelty release proved to be as serious as anything by Martin's favorite banjo players: a point driven home when his fellow grassers first heard "Late For School," "Pretty Flowers," "Clawhammer Medley" and other selections. The Crow went on to win the 2010 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
From there, Martin cut albums with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell (Love Has Come For You (2013) and So Familiar (2015)) and North Carolina-based bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers (Rare Bird Alert (2011) and The Long Awaited Album (2017)). In 2014, Martin and Brickell won the first-ever Best American Roots Song Grammy for the song "Love Has Come For You."
More recently, Martin's played banjo as part of his on-stage routine with fellow entertainer Martin Short for the Netflix special and album An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life.
Martin's greatest gift to bluegrass music, even beyond his Grammy awards and the added visibility he's brought to the Steep Canyon Rangers, has to be the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
The award, co-founded by Martin and his wife Anne Stringfield, has honored the likes of Noam Pikelny, Rhiannon Giddens, Victor Furtado and others with a trophy and a cash prize of $50,000. It is presided over by a board consisting of such banjo legends as J.D. Crowe, Tony Trischka, Alison Brown and Bela Fleck.
Per Martin's website, "the award is given to a person or group who has given the board a fresh appreciation of this music, either through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation, and is deserving of a wider audience. Recipients must be a professional or semi-professional and should currently be active in their careers."
Since the turn of the century, Martin has joined fellow comedians Ed Helms and John C. Reilly in using his pop culture platform to bring new ears and increased respect to timeless sounds sometimes written off as being too "hillbilly."
"It's funny. I went to a jazz concert at a club in New York and it was full with maybe about 200 people there," Martin told Billboard in 2017. "I thought, 'Well, this is what bluegrass draws." Jazz can draw 5,000 to a festival and so can bluegrass. Jazz, though, is associated with the well-dressed and New York City. And bluegrass is a much funkier form of music that is just not as, in quotes, cool, but the music I believe rivals any class of a specialized genre of music. It can be very sophisticated and emotional. It has a very rich history and can feature great storytelling. But it's a genre that's underrepresented in the wider culture."
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