June 15, 2010
We had circled the wagons folding chairs, actually in the quite adequate for the times (mid-1970s) production studio of KMOR radio down in Salt Lake. The seven of us had gathered to record a conversation that would be broadcast later that night and, hopefully, drum up a bit of business for a concert up at Kingsbury Hall the following evening.
The upcoming performance at the University of Utah would feature the locally iconic Deseret String Band performing on a bill with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a state of affairs that lent itself easily to a round-table immersion into the burgeoning progressive country music scene and also the olde-timey acoustic music renaissance then underway.
The banter between John McEuen, a founding member of the Dirt Band with long-time Salt Lake ties, and the then five members of the DSB proved both hilarious and profound — all in all, quite illuminating. Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, this was radio as a "cool" medium.
Following the session, as appreciations and goodbyes were being passed about, McEuen told me that he had heard the radio spot I had cut for the concert as he drove in and was wondering why I hadn’t mentioned the opening act, a close friend and comedian named Steve Martin.
Pleading ignorance, and not at all that sure I was comfortable with a comedian intruding upon this sacred and traditional musical space, I apologized. At the concert itself, I would soon learn the error of my pompous ways. Martin, early in the evolution of his over-the-top and quite eclectic stage persona, totally blew away the house.
We got the manic grin, the white suit, the arrow-through-the-head, a bit of balloon headwear, and what immediately caught my attention, a 5-string banjo which, as the evening wore on, took up a larger and larger portion of his shtick.
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His ability to actually perform in the Scruggs and "claw hammer" picking styles upon this "primitive" instrument while freely quoting from the bluegrass repertoire was mind boggling. Right away you could tell that although he used it as a comedy prop, he dug the instrument and the music it made in a quite serious fashion.
Following the show, McEuen, recognizing the no doubt often repeated grin of amazement on my face, gave me a knowing wink. A year or so later, at a Terrace Ballroom concert he was solo-opening for Dolly Parton, he laughingly recalled the incident. By this time, of course, Steve Martin had become a world-wide phenomenon.
Martin, who also went on to find success as an author, actor, playwright, and musician, among other creative pursuits, seemingly can do most anything artistic in a top-shelf fashion.
Although probably not on a par, nor meant to be, with classics of the age, Martin’s play from the early ’90s, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," set in the Paris right-bank neighborhood of Montmartre, knocked me out in a manner similar to his banjo riffs. Even in this generally-demanding sidebar to the arts, his left and right brains romped freely.
What we have is a young Pablo Picasso running into a young Albert Einstein at the bistro Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit) in October of 1904 on the cusp of some of their most startling breakthroughs. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity would be published the following year and Picasso would paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a couple of years after that.
Their fictional confrontation revolves around the value of genius and talent, a not unheard of repartee at a watering hole that also played host to such struggling artists and writers as Modigliani, Apollinaire and Utrillo. Suffice to say, his sense of setting, if not plot, turned my crank, as it were.
But back to the banjo and Martin’s release in the spring of 2009 of "The Crow: New Songs for the 5-string Banjo" which featured guest appearances by Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs, Tim O’Brien, Tony Trischka and Mary Black and garnered, as if yet one more "atta boy" was really all that necessary, this year’s Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. Did I mention it was produced by John McEuen?
Well, anyway, Steve’s out on tour and stopping by Red Butte Garden tonight (Wednesday) for a sold-out show (never let that stop you) with the phenomenal Steep Canyon Rangers from Ashville, North Carolina. And, no doubt, there’ll be enough hot pickin’ and obnoxious humor, including banjo jokes, to satisfy the most finicky among our acoustic tribe.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.