Steve Martin Explains His Love of Banjo Music: 'It Rivals Any Specialized Genre'

Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform at the Shoreline Amphitheatre on Oct. 20, 2012 in Mountain View, Calif.

It was nine years ago when comedy legend Steve Martin and his wife, the journalist Anne Stringfield, concocted Martin’s eponymous Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Prize. Decided by the couple along with a variety of the genre’s luminaries (including Béla Fleck and J.D. Crowe), the honor consists of a statue and cash prize of $50,000, and is bequeathed to someone who, according to its mission statement, “has given the board a fresh appreciation of this music, either through artistry, composition, innovation or preservation, and is deserving of a wider audience.” Last week it was announced that this year’s winner is Scott Vestal, a 55-year-old veteran of the genre as a solo artist, musician and banjo designer. Martin spoke to Billboard about the origins of his namesake prize, his love of banjo music, and the upcoming sophomore album from his own band, The Steep Canyon Rangers.

What was the impetus behind launching The Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass?

It’s been nine years since my wife and I created the award. The reason is, I had just started on the banjo circuit with The Steep Canyon Rangers and I was meeting a lot of players. When I first entered the banjo world in the ‘60s, the standard quality of the average player was very good. Then when I came back into it 40 years later, the standard level of player was extremely high and I thought they were playing at the level of classical musicians; it wasn't just folk music anymore. But I’d meet people and I’d ask them how it was going and about the banjo, and they’d say “Well, I’m still paying it off.” I thought, wouldn't it be great to first of all help out somebody and bring attention to the banjo and the music? And that’s the purpose of the award.

What’s the process behind who is given the prize?

The board members who decide are some of the greatest players in the banjo world, including Alison Brown who is an exceptional player. Some of the board members I never actually met. We can communicate so easily over email and we’re spread out across the country, which is good because we come in contact with more players that way. But the board is, with the exception of myself and my wife, they’re all people who would conceivably win the award. We didn't want to make it another greatest hits award. The goal is to find people who are more unknown and deserving of attention.

How do you find contenders? Are you getting submissions?

No, we don’t take submissions. We’re not that organized. But we do have our eyes and ears open. We have nine board members and we’re always both listening to new people and listening to people who have been around forever. (This year’s winner) Scott Vestal is an almost underground player, but known in the bluegrass world.

How was Scott ultimately chosen?

We come up with a short list and we do a vote. We’ll comment on it through email and then we send it out for a final vote, and sometimes do two rounds of that.

And then are you the one who gets to call Scott to say he won?

We actually send out a letter signed by all the members of the board. This year was the first time we did it live. He was playing at RockyGrass, a Bluegrass festival in Colorado, and one of our board members Pete Wernick went on stage and gave it to him.

You used to give it out on David Letterman’s Late Show, right?

Yes, we did! Dave Letterman, bless his heart, was maybe the only person who would put this music on the air.

You’ve been a singular champion of bluegrass and banjo music for many years.  What’s it like giving back to a genre that isn’t flush with money or at the top of the charts?

It’s funny. I went to a jazz concert at a club in New York and it was full with maybe about 200 people there. I thought, ‘Well, this is what bluegrass draws." Jazz can draw 5,000 to a festival and so can bluegrass. Jazz, though, is associated with the well-dressed and New York City. And bluegrass is a much funkier form of music that is just not as, in quotes, cool, but the music I believe rivals any class of a specialized genre of music. It can be very sophisticated and emotional. It has a very rich history and can feature great storytelling. But it’s a genre that’s underrepresented in the wider culture.

You’ve had a front-row seat to the evolution of the genre since the '60s. I’m wondering what your take is on the status of it today, in 2017?

It’s definitely gotten bigger. A bluegrass festival today can draw thousands, whereas 40 years ago they were drawing hundreds. The players today are also internationally known. Artists like Béla Fleck or Tony Trischka or groups like Hot Rize are known worldwide. It’s also popular in Japan, where they have these bluegrass bands made up of great players who pronounce the lyrics phonetically. Some of the best banjos are even being made in the Czech Republic, which is where bluegrass music is also big, don’t ask me why.

You and your band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, have a new record coming out in September perhaps appropriately called The Long Awaited Album. What can you tell us about it?

Well, it’s our second record since I collaborated with Edie Brickell (on two albums and the musical Bright Star). The title is ironic since no one’s really anticipating it, but I thought it was funny. We’re actually really pleased with the album and can’t wait to get the music out there.

You’re also getting ready to premiere Meteor Shower, the new Broadway play you wrote starring Amy Schumer and Keegan Michael Key. Can we expect to hear your music in it as well?

Rehearsals start at the end of September and it’s premiering in November. It has no music that I’ve written. It’s definitely not a musical. Meteor Shower is a comedy. A hard comedy, we’ll call it.

Lastly, I’m wondering how many banjos you yourself own? Do you have a favorite one?

Well, I have about eight banjos. Every one of them I use on stage since each of them has a different tone, or for tuning. I didn't want to waste the audience’s time if we had to take a break to tune up. Some are clawhammer banjos, which is an open-back banjo, and some are bluegrass banjos, which have a resonator back. Right now I’m playing a Nechville for my three-finger style and a Deering, which is an open-back banjo and is absolutely beautiful.

I’m surprised to hear you only own 8 banjos.

Yeah, I think so. Maybe nine. Some were gifts and that sort of thing.