The lights die in the Directors Guild of America Theatre and a shadowy figure takes the stage, sidestepping the set-up of folding chairs and microphone stands. “Uh, it’s a little dark up here,” he says. The audience laughs.
From the darkened stage comes the twang of a single banjo, a tight little number flowing sweet as a creek. This continues for a minute, and then the stage lights come up to reveal the musician: Steve Martin. There he stands in a dark suit and tie, not just playing around with the banjo but rather pickin’ it like a pro. The New York audience gives him a big, wild cheer. It is startling to see him on stage not as a wild and crazy comic actor but as a man willing to reveal his musical dimension. Perhaps it isn’t widely known that his banjo obsession predates pretty much everything he’s known for - from Saturday Night Live to Father of the Bride to Shopgirl (Martin’s latest film, based on his own novella) to his novels and essays, which run regularly in The New Yorker, the magazine hosting the banjo event at its sixth annual festival of arts.
As the applause dies, this might be a good place for a wisecrack but instead Martin brings out his stage companions, starting with Pete Wernick, a Brooklyn native and Colorado banjoist. Together they play a little something. “That only has two chords,” Wernick says. “Well then I can play it,” says Martin. (Big laugh.) He introduces Charles Wood, a prodigious South Carolinian whom Martin discovered while trolling the internet for banjo Christmas songs; Tony Ellis, a lionised Ohio banjo master; Wernick’s wife, Joan, a guitarist/vocalist; guitarist Gary Scruggs, son of the legendary Earl Scruggs; and then daddy Scruggs himself, who at the age of 10 invented the three-finger playing style that revolutionised the five-string banjo and forever linked it to bluegrass music. Every banjo man and woman picking today, including the self-taught Martin, was influenced one way or another by Earl Scruggs, now 81, who enters to a standing ovation.
It’s difficult enough to MC a panel of this many performers but trickier still to do it in front of 500 people who have each paid $35 to see you be funny and play banjo and choreograph a meaningful performance by a stage full of virtuosos. It requires an instinctive calibration of deference, tact, agenda and grace.
Martin puts Scruggs in the centre seat and they all play “Doin’ My Time” and then “Step it Up and Go”, threaded with Martin one-liners - “What are we playing?” “What about ‘Step it Up and Go’?” “Lemme go learn it, then.” (Big laugh.)
Martin moves on to “what the banjo sounded like before Earl” and Ellis plays “Stand Boys Stand”, which he learned from his grandmother, who learned it from a Virginia state senator when she was nine. Martin does “Quaker Girl” in the frailing method - a slappy, fluttery sort of style - as the old-timers watch with quiet, nodding approval. Next, Martin asks Scruggs about the famous syncopated three-finger style.
Scruggs: “Well, I was 10 years old and sitting around one day idling in the front room, playing a song called ‘Ruben’, and realised I had this three-finger roll going.”
Martin: “And? Did the heavens open up?”
Scruggs: “My brother Horace said I ran through the house saying, ‘I got it! I got it!’ They didn’t know what I had but…“ (Big laugh.)
Martin says he wants to demonstrate the haunting Appalachian sound that is so particular to the banjo. “Pete, you got something? Tony, you got something?” he says. “I got something but it’s not a banjo.” (Big laugh.)
Ellis plays a lullaby. Wood gives his moving rendition of “What a Wonderful World”. As the final bittersweet note fades, Martin waits one perfect beat and says, “Charles, that’s gonna get a lot better once you master it.” (Big laugh.)
He asks Scruggs about “Scruggs’ pegs”, another Scruggs invention where a banjoist can tune while playing. This draws from the reticent Scruggs an anecdote about a cheap guitar, a pocket knife and his wife’s waxing mop.
For more than an hour, Martin nudges the programme along not with the hubris of a Hollywood star but with the deftness of a maestro. The evening coalesces as a showcase of music, jokes and stories about hunted foxes, broken banjos, riverboats, grannies and mamas. All along, Martin keeps this pleased, awed little smile. His left loafer taps perfect time. He does have rhythm and, better yet, soul.
You may think, “Steve Martin and banjo?” But there is actually something fitting about Steve Martin playing the instrument. For all its entertaining sprightliness the banjo is also capable of great melancholy and depth. It’s the sad clown of string instruments. Not that Martin appears sad, but you don’t play the way he plays with a hard, unbroken heart.
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