Rare Bird Alert

Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers

Rounder, 2011


REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


There are a lot of people who reject bluegrass music out of hand because they only have a few dated reference points that make them think of the genre as deeply "hillbilly" or sung with a high nasally voice that could only be an acquired taste.  But the truth is that bluegrass in its commercial infancy was very different than it is today – and comparing the bluegrass records of the 1950s to today's bands is like saying that Chubby Checker still represents rock and pop music today.  While the roots are still present in today’s more progressive sound, it is obvious the genre has come a long way, baby.

Steve Martin And The Steep Canyon Rangers on Rare Bird Alert exemplify a fresh approach to an old style of music, and one of the truly American forms of it, no less. Yes, I mean that Steve Martin. The comic from Saturday Night Live and Father Of The Bride. Martin has always utilized his banjo playing as part of his shtick, but began taking it seriously (as seriously as a comic can take such things) with a solo release of banjo music, The Crow, in 2009. After reasonable success with that album, he teamed up with the North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers in 2010 to add some depth to his bluegrass chops. The result is excellence.

Now many true blue ‘grassers like myself view celebrity ventures in bluegrass music with a bit of wariness.  Bands that have been performing with consistent quality for years are immediately overlooked the second a Patty Loveless or Vince Gill decides to record a grass album with session musicians.  These bigger names will invariably win a Grammy for it and be hailed as a great bluegrass star picker while worthy efforts by real bluegrass artists go unnoticed.  Steve Martin's approach is different. It is not to swoop in and gobble up a segment of overlooked country music listeners who desire REAL country music, it is one that comes from years of a true admiration and practice to become a proficient banjo player.  And with this approach, his celebrity status is actually able to do a lot for the genre by bringing new listeners to the table.

With Martin's innate humor, this isn't Bill Monroe's bluegrass subject material of hound dogs and blue moons in Kentucky. Sure, there are several songs that graze the edge of that style, but only gently.  In “Yellow-Backed Fly," you can clearly get the imagery of a man going on a yearly fishing trip to a mountain getaway and attempting and failing year after year to catch "the big one," leaving with a great fish story but no fish.  And just about all of the instrumental numbers (there are four) on the album are dyed in-the-wool mountain fiddle tunes that sit comfortably on any bluegrass album. nbtc__dv_250

But then you are confronted with several songs that would not seem to fit in such a strictly traditional style such as bluegrass. But yet they do. Lyrically, they are refreshingly different, but melodically and structurally they hew close to bluegrass orthodoxy.  "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" and "Jubilation Day" nominally hold to a traditional upbeat bluegrass form about messy breakups, but Martin's comedy shines through, especially with "Jubilation Day" which is of the laugh out loud variety. The lyrics may be comedic, but listen to the music.  Musically, this is a serious song that is executed to perfection.  Similarly, "Women Like To Slow Dance" is a barn burning fiddle tune that has some great tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

Martin is able to use his celebrity status to grab other celebrity friends to sing on the album. I'll admit when I heard that Steve Martin was doing bluegrass I was not anxious to go get the album for the reasons I listed above. But then I was doing some traveling and listening to the bluegrass station on satellite radio. A song came on which was enjoyably different and had a lead vocalist that sounded an awful lot like Paul McCartney. But what would he be doing on a ‘grass record?  That would be something right?  Sure enough, Martin had snagged McCartney to sing "My Best Love," which is a nearly perfect encapsulation of the mundane pleasures of married life. And it’s McCartney singing bluegrass!  He also nabbed the Dixie Chicks for "You" which is unremarkable, but that is sort of par for the course for the Chicks since Fly.  It is the only low point for this album.

A common practice for many bluegrass bands is to add one or two gospel songs to a secular album.  Martin and the Rangers pay tribute to this tradition by offering the hilarious "Atheists Don't Have No Songs," which notes how just about every religious group known to man has beautiful music, but atheists just sing the blues because "no one ever wrote a tune for godless existentialism." The wordsmithing on this song is just perfect (how do you shoehorn “existentialism” into a song?) and the delivery in the a cappella style shows again that these guys are serious musicians bringing across a funny subject. "Atheists" and a bluegrass reincarnation of Martin's comedic hit "King Tut" are from live performances and can be seen on Austin City Limits.

For those who may be looking for a way to ease into bluegrass while keeping a foot planted in something you know and understand, Rare Bird Alert is perfect for you. Check it out and then read some of my other bluegrass reviews for what more traditional bands are offering.  If you are already a bluegrass fan, do not shy away from this thoroughly enjoyable album. Martin has the chops for bluegrass even if he hides it behind a comedic veneer. And the Rangers only augment his credibility. Also, keep in mind that this is a man who has made millions already doing stand up and movies. Bluegrass isn't paying his bills (which is proven by copies of three and seven cent royalty checks he posted on his website – ostensibly the proceeds from some of his bluegrass songwriting), he is doing it because he loves it and he is quite good at it, too.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2012 Curtis Jones and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rounder, and is used for informational purposes only.