This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Banjo Newsletter, and is also available as an easy-to-print PDF.
It’s been interesting to watch the extremely rare mass exposure the banjo has been getting lately due to the major success of Steve Martin’s new record, “The Crow”. At this writing, the record has just appeared on Billboard’s Top 200 at #106, and Steve is in the midst of his second media blitz of the year highlighting the album. In February, “The Crow”‘s preliminary release on Amazon gave us chances to see him perform with a full band on Saturday Night Live and the Letterman Show (see my March column); and in late May and early June, he’s been on several talk shows: Ellen, Tavis Smiley, Jimmy Fallon, plus the media giant American Idol. The New York Times,, Wall St. Journal, Huffington Post, and many other print outlets have seized the chance to write about the “wild and crazy guy”‘s banjo predilection.
In his television interviews, Steve amiably discusses his interest in the instrument and gets in a bit of playing. We get to see the hosts express naivete, interest, and ultimately amazement when Steve cuts loose with one of his tunes. The media have come up with pretty odd new misinformation. No less an authority than the New York Times captioned a photo of Steve with his Florentine: “Steve Martin is considered a master of the difficult clawhammer five-fingered playing style.”
Just think — all the careful efforts by this humble publication and its dedicated columnists to explain the intricacies of clawhammer, and none yet has revealed that it’s a five-fingered style!
At one point Steve indicated to me that he was interested in hearing some of the reaction in the bluegrass world to the record. I forwarded some things. Thought you might enjoy some of his responses.
“Thanks so much for the kind message and the precious infos. I’d like so much to receive also a copy of the new album, if and when it’s possible, to enrich so my radio program with other good music.”
Nice very email Italian from.
From a lady in Wisconsin:
“My dear mother-in-law gave me Steve Martin’s CD “The Crow I like it a lot, especially “Pretty Flowers.” I was singing it in my head all day, one day, when my husband got home and we started talking about stuff and pretty soon we were bickering about stuff and before you know it, we were having a huge argument and I ended up sleeping on the couch. The next morning the first thing that popped into my mind was that song and I woke up humming that pretty tune all over again…la la la la la la la…. but I was still mad at my husband. We’re fine now, by the way. Marilyn”
I told her to watch out next time that song goes through her head.
Well, we learned it has no healing powers. Anyway, I’m glad to hear of any anecdotes about the music. I think the record requires more of my personal attention than a movie!
Indeed, with a movie, Steve can do talk shows and have the hosts play a clip of the finished product. As a musician, he has to play at the top of his form, and sometimes organize a band. The job includes getting there early for sound check and rehearsal, then waiting quite a while, then chatting with the host, then suddenly getting up there and… nailing it on the first try. No pressure!
In May, Steve made a few charity performances at venues in Los Angeles and New York City, backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers, whom he knows through his wife’s friendship with Woody Platt, their guitar player. The media turned out in force at these events, highly impressed and surprised by the banjo skills as well as the wit of this “Renaissance man”.
The Huffington Post wrote:
“There was modesty and fake pompousness (‘I’m in front here, because, you know, I’m the guy,’ he explained. Later: ‘I made a deal with Graham [Sharp, the other banjo player] – every time I make a mistake he has to make one too.’)
But he also crushed any doubts about his chops with “Clawhammer Melody,” a mash-up of standards on which he showed off the unusual style of clawhammering, or frailing. Instead of being pulled by three fingers, like the way Earl Scruggs does it, Martin depresses the banjos’s strings with five fingers – a particularly challenging technique, but one at which he’s considered a master.”
Remarkably, in one paragraph of 63 words the writer managed to make nine errors. That comes out to an error every seven words, almost as bad as my typing.
I wrote Steve: The legend continues. You’ve got to show me this unusual 5-finger style started by the Times. Note the report seems to imply that you’re playing more than one banjo, which must be especially hard.
Yes, that five-finger technique, of which I am a master, is very difficult. The hard part is getting the pinky to hit the fourth string.
I can’t stand it that they don’t say I’m a master of the difficult four-finger, three-finger style.
I asked him: How will you explain to the clawhammer players that contrary to common fallacy, the player must depress the strings of more than one banjo?
Most clawhammer players don’t know that. And that what’s makes me different.
I wrote Steve: “Martin depresses the banjos’s strings with five fingers”
The writer does know his banjo lingo, saying: “he also crushed any doubts about his chops”.
For all this crushing and depressing news, here is the Huffington Post article.
It’s just about time for me to write my next Banjo Newsletter column. I’d like any comment on how you are able (using the challenging five-fingered style of which you are a master) to depress the strings of more than one banjo at a time.
Wow, I don’t know if I’m ready for my technique to be given to the banjo world, but go ahead!
OK then, I need some explanation of how you do it, or ever did it. I’m all ears (not literally).
The important thing in the technique is to note that, yes, it’s a five finger process, but ONLY five fingers, so at any time you’re using four fingers on the left hand, you can only use one finger on the right, etc.
Anything about how to get the strings depressed, but not so depressed they don’t want to play?
The secret is to depress the strings without abusing them.
Many Banjo Hangout readers had comments about Steve’s performance on American Idol. He appeared with a band, providing accompaniment for two former “Idol” winners, singing his song, “Pretty Flowers” from the CD. I sent a summary of the most common reactions. Naturally, the most typical reaction was how good it was to see him up there. But several people said: “You didn’t look too involved/pleased.”
I don’t understand this. I was pleased.
As I wrote Steve: Funny, people generally expect banjo players to look joyous, as the banjo sounds joyous. They overlook that it’s hard to play, takes concentration, and wonder why or are even bothered when banjo players don’t look happier. But… these commenters ARE banjo players… so I’m guessing it has something to do with your image as a lively, funny guy, and they’re not accustomed to seeing you not especially animated (especially when the singers are super-animated).
When performing, I lay on a smile sometimes just to deal with people’s expectations. Before going on Austin City Limits, I practiced my hardest tune with a smile in place and sure enough, it looked good on the show.
Consider how many highly talented banjo players there are. Only a very few get to perform on national TV. It’s pretty interesting seeing what happens when they do!
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