Steve Martin, the screenwriter, playwright, stand-up comedian, best-selling author, juggler, tap-dancer, balloon sculptor, art collector, Academy Awards host, Saturday Night Live cast member, Emmy Award-winning actor and now, Grammy Award-winning musician, will play his banjo at the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) Oct. 6.
Martin has been playing the banjo for almost 50 years and is accomplished enough to have won the approval of banjo virtuosos Earl Scruggs (best known for the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song), Bela Fleck (winner of 11 Grammy Awards) and Tony Trischka (winner of Album of the Year and Banjo Player of the Year for the International Bluegrass Music Awards 2007).
Cal Poly Arts Director Steve Lerian has seen countless musical acts come through the PAC.
“I think the uniqueness of having a huge star like Steve Martin is interesting enough,” Lerian said. “The fact that he’s an extremely accomplished banjo player is even better.”
Martin will perform with the bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers. They will play songs off his Grammy Award-winning 2009 album “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.” The album is a token of his affection for bluegrass, with appearances by performers such as country singers Vince Gill and Dolly Parton.
As host of the radio show “Basically Bluegrass” on KCBX-FM, Glenn Horn is familiar with the bluegrass genre and has been on the radio for more than 20 years.
“I’ve listened to his album and seen him play,” Horn said. “He is an excellent, well-schooled banjo player.”
According to Martin’s autobiography, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life,” Martin’s schooling began at age 17 when he picked up a banjo for the first time. As his skills improved, Martin played a few songs when he first started his stand-up career in the ’70s.
Martin needed acts to fill the time so he incorporated everything he knew, which included magic tricks, juggling and playing the banjo. The act didn’t really change over the years, it just grew.
Out of Martin’s long list of known talents, his music skills are not always what first come to mind.
Business administration junior Ashely Martin has grown up watching Steve Martin perform.
“When I think of Steve Martin, I think of movies like ‘The Jerk,’ ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Father of the Bride.’ I grew up loving ‘Father of the Bride,’” Martin said. “To find out he is pursuing his music career just goes to show what a talented person he is.”
In 2002, Martin shared a Grammy with bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs for the recording of the song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the album “Earl Scruggs and Friends.”
Scruggs is considered the father of that particular style, Horn said.
“Earl Scruggs set the tone for the three-finger pick banjo style,” Horn said.
Whereas Scruggs is credited with a three-fingered picking style, Martin is regarded with a five-fingered playing style known as clawhammer or frailing. In this style, the banjo’s strings are pushed down by the fingernail, instead of pulled up with picks.
Martin’s love for the instrument goes beyond performing. He awarded the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass to Noam Pikelny on Sept. 8. Pikelny received a cash prize of $50,000.
According to Martin’s website, the award was created to “bring recognition to an individual or group for outstanding accomplishment in the field of five-string banjo or bluegrass music. It is hoped that by highlighting the extraordinary musicianship of these artists, bluegrass and bluegrass-related music will enjoy an increased appreciation world-wide.”
Martin’s upcoming show is sold out.
“It’s one of the few shows we completely sold out a month in advance,” Lerian said. “We are excited to have him here.”