Tuning instruments between songs is a fact of life in bluegrass. So when there are breaks in the action on stage, it’s great to have a friend who can hit all the right notes.
Steve Martin has won Grammy Awards for both his comedy albums and his banjo-powered bluegrass. He has hosted “Saturday Night Live” 15 times and kept Academy Awards viewers in stitches. So when he teams up with the Steep Canyon Rangers, his comic timing turns the spaces between the songs into moments of pure merriment.
“Bluegrass has a history of comedy,” said Woody Platt, lead vocalist and guitarist for the Steep Canyon Rangers. “In bluegrass, you have to retune a lot. Maybe the comedy was there to cover that down time.
“We were never very good at it, but Steve is the best ever. We’re enjoying that. When we’re not with Steve, we don’t do comedy, because he’s so good.”
No surprise, then, that Martin and the Rangers shared the award for entertainer of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2011. Since teaming up with Martin for a 2009 broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion,” the Rangers have joined him at the Bonnaroo Music Festival and for last year’s “A Capitol Fourth” concert in Washington, among other high-profile shows. “Rare Bird Alert,” the album they recorded together in 2011, picked up a Grammy nomination.
The Steep Canyon Rangers are striving to balance tour dates with Martin with their own concert dates and still carve out spouse and family time back home in Brevard, N.C. Platt said the Rangers’ plan for the summer months is to spend about 10 days each month on the road with Martin, use another weekend to play their own dates and reserve a weekend at home.
It’s important for the band to sustain its own musical identity, and touring in support of its new Rounder Records album, “Nobody Knows You,” keeps that dream moving forward.
The secret to what Platt calls a “sustainable career” lies in the band members’ strong friendships. Banjo player Graham Sharp, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Charles Humphrey III and fiddler Nicky Sanders built the band on a foundation of college fun, camping trips and lots of laughter.
“The Steep Canyon Rangers are unique, because we were friends before we were band mates,” Platt said. “All of us have such a history. Friendship trumps all in this band, and that’s great.”
Platt said that Martin fits right in.
“And Steve? He’s a friend,” Platt said. “He’s not just a guy who shows up on stage.
“There’s no tension, no anxiety — and he’s very humble. He’s a great player and a great showman, but he’s open to suggestions.”
Right now, the Rangers are striking the balance they seek — and enjoying it.
“It’s very important to us to maintain our solo career,” Platt said. “We’re not just in the shadows. It’s working really well.
“We’re as busy as we want to be,” Platt said. “Maybe a hair busier.”