In early 2001 I caught bluegrass fever after the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was released the previous December. I bought the soundtrack and a friend burned me a copy of “Down From the Mountain,” the CD recording the Nashville concert by the soundtrack’s musicians and others.
The following year, while living on St. Simons Island, I even attended a bluegrass festival on Jekyll Island, met the legendary Ralph Stanley and had him sign the “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts” CD by Ralph Stanley and Friends.
Though I still have all those CDs and play them occasionally, but that interest in bluegrass waned as the years went by.
Until Saturday night.
That was when I was lucky enough to attend the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s third annual Symphony Gala at the Woodruff Arts Center in Midtown, where Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers performed with the orchestra.
I discovered Martin is as talented an actor and comedian as he is a bluegrass star, and his band is just as good.
The orchestra played two songs by itself, "Hoe-Down" from "Rodeo" by Aaron Copland and III "On the Trail" from "Grand Canyon Suite" by Ferde Grofe, before Martin, wearing a bright red suit, and the Rangers entered the stage. That’s when he started his unique style of comedy.
“I’ve always had a dream of coming to play bluegrass in Atlantic, um, the Atlantic Ocean, in Atlanta Symphony Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I feel like I’m one step closer to that dream,” Martin said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “I saw a sign that said, ‘Sold out.’ I thought, ‘How rude!’ I’m the one in the red suit and I’ll be wearing this red suit the entire night unless something goes horribly wrong. I was told this year’s gala has sold more than previous [ASO] galas. It was probably because of my fee.”
The jokes continued in between songs, starting with how Martin and the Rangers met.
“We were at a party in North Carolina, where my wife and I vacation,” he said. “We’ve been together ever since then. That story doesn’t go well down in Hollywood, so we say we met in rehab.”
Later Martin added, “You people probably are wondering why I have so many banjos [five] on stage. It’s a big ego trip. I think of them as my children, which means one of them is not mine.”
After another song, as band member Graham Sharp was about to speak, Martin pushed toward him a note attached to a conductor’s stand, which Sharp read.
“You really lit it up,” he said of Martin’s banjo playing. “You really rivaled the great Earl Scruggs.”
Martin replied, “That was unexpected.”
Later, after Martin mentioned the Rangers won a Grammy Award last month for Best Bluegrass Album, “Nobody Knows You,” he bragged about his own honors.
“I have four Grammys [two for music albums and two for comedy albums]. How many do you have?” Martin asked band member Woody Platt.”
“Just the one,” Platt said.
On July 4, Martin and the Rangers played for President Barack Obama at the White House, performing their original song, “Me and Paul Revere,” about Revere’s horse. They performed it Saturday night as well.
The only disappointing part of the night was the concert ending only 70 minutes after Martin and the Rangers entered the stage, though they did play two encores.
From the somber “The Great Remember” to the upbeat “The Crow” to the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” Martin and the Rangers were incredible, harmonizing as well as the Beatles and the Eagles but also more entertaining, thanks to the comedy shtick.
Needless to say, I’ve caught bluegrass fever again.