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“The Long-Awaited Album,” Steve Martin’s long-awaited new album with the North Carolina group the Steep Canyon Rangers, is full of stories that mix humor and melancholy, whimsy and realism, rich characters and concrete details. And lots of banjos. That instrument—so dexterously, even acrobatically picked and strummed—proves just as crucial to relating these tales as the lyrics themselves, each chord and riff revealing depths to Martin’s narrators and to his musical talent. In the eight years since The Crow introduced him as an idiosyncratic bluegrass musician, as fluid in his technique as he is knowledgeable of its history, Martin has worked to refine his craft and push the form forward. Following 2011’s Rare Bird Alert, his first album to feature the Rangers, he recorded a pair of records with Edie Brickell, which earned the duo a Grammy for Best American Roots Songs for “Love Has Come for You.” In 2016, Bright Star, a musical based on the duo’s songs, debuted on Broadway and earned five Tony nominations.
Rather than a departure, Martin’s musical career is an extension of the storytelling impulse that drove his work as a comedian, an actor, a screenwriter, a playwright, an essayist, and a novelist. “I think those influences come into play in these songs, because when I’m writing lyrics, I’m always thinking, What happens next? Where does the story go from here?” Bluegrass music is, among many other things, a means to spin yarns, to tell tales, to ponder the felicities of the heart.
“The Long-Awaited Album” is full of love songs. Some, like the boisterous “Caroline,” are humorous; others, like “All Night Long,” are heavy with a gentle sadness. “There’s nothing richer than talking about romance and heartache,” Martin says. “It’s something everyone can identify with. I love to hear stories about people breaking up—why and how it happened, who said what. I’m fascinated by those stories, but most of these are very optimistic love songs.” Even the instrumental numbers on “The Long-Awaited Album” have the thrust of a narrative arc. “Bluegrass instrumentals conjure a place, especially the banjo,” Martin says. “The banjo especially is evocative of hills and dells and trees and joy.” That’s true of “Angelina the Barista,” a spry banjo ramble whose three-finger riffs conjure a well-trod dance floor somewhere in rural America—with just the slightest whiff of espresso in the air.
These songs have been percolating in Martin’s head for most of the 2010s, finding outlets at sound checks and live shows and band rehearsals. They began recording them piecemeal—no deadlines, no pressure—in cities around the country: Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, and Asheville, North Carolina, which the Rangers call home. At the helm was legendary producer Peter Asher, who has worked on classic albums by Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, and many others; he also who produced Martin’s two albums with Brickell.“ The sessions went very quickly, because I’d say eighty percent of the tunes we had played onstage a lot,” says Martin. “We got to rehearse them while touring, so we worked pretty quickly in the studio. Because we knew the songs really well, we also knew how to change them up.”
“Steve Martin has done a lot for bluegrass music,” says Platt, “just in the sheer volume of people he’s played the banjo for or talked about bluegrass with, whether it’s on late-night TV or at show with 5,000 people. He’s been an amazing ambassador for the banjo and for bluegrass music, and we’re all grateful for that.”
With “The Long-Awaited Album” Martin continues to nudge the boundaries of the banjo, respectfully but irreverently, which has established him as one of the most popular—and, in fact, among the finest—roots musicians working today. Yet, he remains a humble student of the instrument, still learning new techniques and considering new tricks. “My taste has grown to more melodic and simpler, so that I can accommodate being twenty years behind people like Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny. I’ve written almost one hundred songs now, and I can’t believe I get to work with this great band that helps me work them out, orchestrate them, and add so much interest to them.”
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Directed, Produced, and Edited by: Laurence Jacobs
Cinematography: Nico Navia
Additional Camera: Genéa Gaudet, Jake Sawyer, Ryan Pawlak and Laurence Jacobs
Production Design: Meg Sunzeri
Makeup Artist: Sussy Campos
Additional Editing and Color Grading: Patrick Murray
Production Assistant: Ryan Pawlak
Label: Josh Berman, Brooks Jones, Ashley Moyer, Eliza Levy, and Matt Miller.
Special Thanks: Jesse and everyone at Mack Sennett!