STEVE MARTIN – MY BANJO HERO

October 21, 2009: Barry Cauchon

banjo-9580

Hi all: I have a fondness for Civil War history and the melodic sounds of the banjo. To me, the sound of the banjo and images from the Civil War go hand-in-hand. I’ve always associated the two together. Years ago, my appreciation for the banjo came from an unlikely source …  comedian Steve Martin. He was my first influence to this great instrument.

So last week (October 15), when Steve Martin brought his banjo playing tour to Toronto I had to be there. And I wasn’t disappointed. It is the second Steve Martin concert I’ve been to in 31 years.

The first was at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in August, 1978. Steve was supporting his hugely successful comedy album “Wild and Crazy Guy” and was performing at arena-size venues. I was a big fan of both Steve’s comedy and banjo playing and so I bought a ticket in the nosebleed section. That night Steve came out in an all pink suit and proceeded to entertain about 18,000 of us. Three things from that show stand out in my memory.

The first was when Steve announced that he would perform a magic trick called “The Amazing Disappearing Dime Trick” in which he held up the dime for all of us to see and then made it disappear. Performing a ‘close up’ magic trick to an arena-size audience was nuts, and a true Martin-style comedic moment (if you don’t get the joke, well you just had to be there…sorry). I loved it.

The second thing I remember was when he performed his hit single “King Tut” at the end of the show (an Egyptian icon that I would personally become involved with two decades later when I became the Sr. Project Manager for the 2005 King Tut tour).

Finally, I remember his banjo playing. This was not a big part of his comedy act that night but nonetheless I was really impressed by his playing and decided that I had to have one for myself. I bought my first banjo a short time later. And although I didn’t keep it for long, eventually selling it at a garage sale, the seed was planted for my future.

Banjo-Cat

Now, roll ahead twenty-two years to the year 2000 and I get the urge to play banjo again. I’m older, wiser and now more dedicated. I’m also experiencing a lot of stress in my life at this time. I buy another banjo along with lots of ‘HOW TO’ books and videos and proceed to teach myself in earnest how to play this thing. I even take a few banjo lessons. Within a month, I upgrade that banjo, exchanging it for one that is “really nice”. My stress levels plummet and I realize that the banjo is also an incredible relaxation instrument.

And then things change. The one thing that any musician will tell you about learning to play a musical instrument is to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. And I did. But one has to remember that when practicing in a shared household (with my family) you have to be cognizant that what you are hearing in your head is not necessarily what your family is hearing. So I was nicely, but firmly asked to “go practice somewhere else”. Crushed, I felt like a leper being sent away to a reclusive colony. I had to find a place where no one else would hear my ‘plunking’. And I did. I moved myself down into the basement (cold, dingy and dreary) and started practicing there. I soon found that I was I starting to find my rhythm, my pace and the feel of the instrument. And I began to develop some speed in my playing (which is pretty critical for the banjo). I was happy.

But being in the basement (remember – that cold, dingy and dreary place) took its toll and I soon found that my banjo was spending a lot more time in its case than in my hands. Eventually it remained there and has been so for the last three years. I was unhappy.

STEVE MARTIN GIVES ME ‘BANJO REBIRTH’

Steve Martin's new album The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo

Steve Martin's new CD called "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo"

Now let’s jump ahead to 2009 and I hear that Steve Martin has released a CD of banjo songs that he wrote himself. I’m intrigued and buy it. The CD is called “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo”. It has sixteen songs of which Steve composed fifteen. I am pleasantly surprised when I listen to it for the first time. Like most fans of this man’s work, I expected a good deal of these to be novelty songs. However, only one song can be considered a Steve Martin novelty song, and personally, that one is great called ‘Late for School’. But the other songs are genuinely wonderful banjo compositions, featuring not only Steve Martin but other exceptional musicians and singers. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire CD.

When I heard that Steve was going to do a limited live concert tour to support the CD and that Toronto was to be one of the stops, I jumped at the chance to see him. This time I was not in the nosebleed section but just a few rows from the front … center stage.

To open the show, comedic writer Dave Barry came out and introduced Steve and did a 15 minute ‘one on one’ interview with him. Odd, but this was a Steve Martin concert after all. I did hear Steve mention that it was ‘fill’ (which could be true as his back up band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, was running late) but I know they do this ‘on stage’ interview at all his concerts. Whatever the case, we got to sit and listen to Dave and Steve chat for a bit and then Steve played a song from his CD . For those folks in attendance that night who were expecting Steve to do a stand up comedy act, I think he won them over when he showed them just how good of a banjo player and composer he really is. Steve is so good in fact that in the past he has shared the stage with banjo greats like Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka to name a few. His banjo compositions are solid and entertaining and I personally went to see him play these songs. What was fun for me, and the audience, was that Steve is still Steve and he injected humor regularly throughout the night resulting in a ‘variety show’ rather than just a straight forward musical show.

Steve’s last encore of the night surprised me. He did a bluegrass version of ‘King Tut’ (which sounded quite similar to the original). For me, I didn’t feel he needed to add that to the repertoire. His banjo songs clearly held their own and if I had any complaint about the show at all was that he didn’t play one of my favorites from his CD called Pretty Flowers. But show business is show business and I guess you have to give the people what they want so King Tut was in and Pretty Flowers was out. I tip my hat to you, sir. Your work is solid.

As an aside, King Tut is in my life again. The second exhibit from the King Tut touring franchise is scheduled to come to Toronto from November 24 to April 18, 2010 and I’m giving talks to students at local schools to help prime them for the exhibit. I call the presentation The King Tutorial. Steve sings King Tut again and I’m giving Tut talks. WEIRD.

So Steve and I again cross paths. It’s all very strange to me. Is it meant to be? Is it fate? I may never know but I still wonder about these kind of things…LOL.

Stewie from "The Family Guy"

Stewie from "The Family Guy"

I think it is safe to say that my ‘Banjo Rebirth’ took place due to Steve’s (not Stewie’s) new CD and concert. My interest is once again peaked to play the banjo. So tonight I will take my banjo out of its case for the first time in over three years and I plan to get really ‘comfy’ with it. And as I do, I will think of Steve Martin and the influences that this man has had on my life over the years. He has influenced my sense of humor. He has influenced my interest in the banjo and strangely, he may have even influenced my involvement with King Tut. For all this, I want to say “Thank you Steve. You’ve brought joy to my life not only in the form of music and humor but also with your personal thoughts on the rights of Australian bushmen to be allowed to smoke in their own huts without reprisals”. Fascinating stuff for sure.

If there is anything I can request from Steve Martin, should we ever meet, it will be to grant me one wish from my own personal bucket list.

BUCKET LIST ITEM #4: Get a FREE banjo lesson from Steve Martin.

Please Steve. Grant me this one wish…please…for FREE!     

Life is good my friends. Have fun and find your joy.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Barry, excellent article, up to your ususal high standard. Love Steve Martin also, thought he was an excellent banjo player (from hearing him play in his movies) but honestly did not know he played professionally. Will explore that facet of his character more in the future. You inspire me to go back to my passion, the piano. Best Tina

    • Hi Tina: Good to hear from you. I wish I was a natural musician. Alas I am not so I have to struggle with it. But I do find it very enjoyable. And for the record, I did take out my banjo last night and sure enough, as rusty as I was, it was really nice to play again. I look forward to practicing more to see if I can get my speed up and hit the notes I am supposed to.
      Have a great day and do go back to your piano. It’s a lovely instrument and I really wish I had one (and knew how to play it).
      Best
      Barry


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