Man and His Banjo: Steve Martin Shares Lifelong Passion

After 50 years of strumming, he and his band won bluegrass' top award.

ByABC News
October 7, 2011, 8:58 AM

Oct. 7, 2011 — -- From the early days as a "Saturday Night Live" guest host to his film career, Steve Martin's life has been steeped in comedy, but few knew that the banjo he used during jokes had become a lifelong passion.

"I played a little bit on stage when I was a standup comedian," the Grammy and Emmy award winner told ABC News. "The reason I played it on stage is because my act was so crazy I thought it's probably good to show the audience I can do something that looks hard, because this act looks like I'm just making it up. I really wasn't. I worked very hard on it."

That hard work paid off last week when Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers were named the 2011 entertainer of the year, the night's top award, at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in Nashville, Tenn.

To learn more about Steve Martin, check out his website.

Martin grew up during the 1950s and '60s in California's Orange County and worked at Disneyland. He said he remembered the first time he heard the banjo's sound.

"I was about 15 years old," he said. "There was a folk music craze led by the Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger and the banjo was introduced in that music, and it quickly led me to bluegrass music."

Martin said he fell in love with the music played by the pioneers of bluegrass -- Flatt and Scruggs, Seeger and the Dillards, who appeared on "The Andy Griffith Show."

"I heard Earl Scruggs," he said. "I heard the Dillards -- I heard them live; they were fantastic -- and my ear was just transfixed by the sound of the banjo. And I got one as soon as I could."

With some help from high school friend John McEuen, who eventually became part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself how to play.

"I would get records by Earl Scruggs. ... I would tune my banjo down and I'd pick out the songs note by note. [I] learned how to play that way," he said. "I persevered. There was a book written by Pete Seeger, who showed you some basic strumming and some basic picking. ... And I kind of worked out my own style of playing."

Photos: See Steve Martin and His Banjo Over the Years

He mastered both styles of banjo -- the three-finger style made famous by his Scruggs, his idol, and the clawhammer also known as "frailing" -- and quietly became a devoted musician. Years later, he was invited to play alongside Scruggs and other bluegrass luminaries on David Letterman's show.

Martin released his first music album, "The Crow," in 2009 and it won a Grammy in 2010. His second, a collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers, was released in March. He started touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers and they were invited to play at the Capitol on July 4 in front of one of the largest audiences ever for a bluegrass band.

He said being awarded entertainer of the year -- his first from the association -- was the greatest thing.

"The bluegrass community ... can be very strict," he told ABC News. "I didn't know if I'd be welcomed into the bluegrass community or not, but I think they judge you very fairly. ... I felt really welcome."