My once-a-year bluegrass post: Steve Martin’s Rare Bird Alert

While some of you may know my friend @bobcarrigan for that tech media gig he has or maybe for that internet advertising thing he does.

However, for me, Bob Carrigan is my go-to source on all things banjo. Bob’s the friend who told me years ago that Steve Martin, who I first heard play the banjo live in 1978, was for real as a banjo player — not the picker I remembered using banjo licks to break-up jokes about his cat stealing stuff from him. Maybe not as for real as, say, a Bela Fleck or Noam (Pickle) Pikelny, but still, a for real serious and professional-grade picker — and not just a famous star who plays the banjo like, say, Kermit the Frog.*

While my tastes in acoustical roots and Americana music tend to emphasize the fiddle, mandolin and guitar, I do have a growing appreciation (thanks, in no small part, to Bob) of the oft maligned (by fiddlers, mandolin players and guitarists) banjo-player.

So I’m now, thanks to the CEO of the world’s largest technology media company, a fan of Steve Martin, the banjo picker. And so yes, I was standing in the line wrapped around the corner heading into the Amazon Store when the new album from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert, came out last month. I am happy to report, after a few dozen listens, that it’s not only a great bluegrass album, it’s got some fun touches that will delight Steve Martin fans who still can’t handle twang. For example, the bluegrass-ish (it’s more old time than bluegrass, but only purists would be able to discern the difference) cover of King Tut, is both classic Martin and part of a fun tradition of bluegrass covers of rock and pop tunes. (However, this may be the first-ever novelty bluegrass cover of a novelty song.)

Surprisingly, the most Steve Martinesque tune on the album is banjo-free, but hilarious. It’s the mostly a capella rendition of the entire hymnal of atheism, a song called, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”

Bottomline: Buy the album.

Not to sound like an infomercial, but….: If you purchase it on Amazon instead of via iTunes, you’ll save $2 and it will be DRM-free AND you will get an upgrade to 20 GB (from 5) on the Amazon Cloud Player.

Bonus links: Steve Martin has become a must-follow user of Twitter: @stevemartintogo. The Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers tour makes a stop in Nashville next month — see you there. And here’s what has to be the greatest experience ever for a banjo-picker, Steve Martin jamming on Orange Blossom Special with Earl Scruggs.

Sidenote: My greatest “Nashville moment” was standing next to (the seated) Earl Scruggs, waiting for a table at a suburban chain restaurant where my son, about 13 at the time, was able to chat about bluegrass with one of the genre’s creators. (Later: Thanks to the miracle of modern blogging, I can link to the post in which I wrote about it when it happened, September 11, 2004.)

*Until I was enlightened by Bob, here’s the entire list of banjo pickers I could name (in no particular order after Earl Scruggs): Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny (via his connection to Chris Thile), J.D. Crowe, Gillian Welch, John McEuen, Alison Brown, Pete Seeger, George Segal, Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, Jerry Garcia, Burl Ives, Grandpa Jones and Kermit the Frog. Not bad, but I can do lots better now.

  • Lewis Pennock

    Saw him with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Ryman in October 2009 – they were videoing it for something but I can’t remember what. Hope they come through town again!