By Vicki Prichard
A survey of the rapidly growing inventory of interviews that Steve Martin has squirreled away in the archive of his weekly radio show, Steve Martin’s Unreal Bluegrass, quickly reveals one thing: Talent knows no bounds; and that includes the host.
When Martin, who is also a Northern Kentucky attorney and musician, spoke with banjo player/writer/comedian Steve Martin, just prior to interviewing him for the show, he made a point to explain that he’s a trial attorney and understands how to let a witness share his or her story.
“He said, “I know who you are, I looked you up,” says Martin.
But Martin, the celebrity, was about to get to know a version of Martin, the trial attorney, which extends far beyond the courtroom. There’s the banjo picker Martin, who knows and appreciates Bluegrass and a good story, and whose Internet radio show is spurring a growing audience, attracting Bluegrass headliners and newcomers who want to spend a Saturday afternoon sharing their story with him.
As for the pre-show talk with Martin, “I told him, “Well, we’ll see how it goes.”
It went pretty well.
“If you listen to his interview, that’s what he really is; he’s a very humble, pleasant person who’s successful at everything he does, but he works very hard at it. He’s very serious about music. It was 45 minutes or so of his interest in music,” says Martin.
Not long after the interview, the ‘unreal’ Martin, along with his daughter, attended Martin’s concert in Dayton, OH, and received a post-show invitation to visit the banjo player on the bus.
“Talk about scoring points with your child,” says Martin.
Where the old and new shall meet
Martin’s interview style, both conversational and substantive, is scoring points too, evidenced by his recent membership on the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 16-member board of directors.
“I didn’t ask to be on the board of IBMA, it must have been the show – some of the interviews,” says Martin. “I said, “Why would you want me on the board? I really don’t have anything to offer you.” They said, “We really like the show and someone is really pushing for you. As long as you don’t come in and say, “Who’s Bill Monroe?””
Martin has grand respect for the Bluegrass greats that first drew him to the music, but he also has an ear for new talent, which he believes keeps the music alive.
“There is this big dispute about what is real Bluegrass. Well, if you really want to limit it to what was real Bluegrass, then it’s Bill Monroe, then Flatt and Scruggs,” says Martin. “But I don’t see how you can have music frozen in time.”
For Martin, real Bluegrass did not end after 1947. Today, he says, some of the greatest musicians in the world, from all forms of music, are playing acoustic Bluegrass. He cites musicians such as mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, who was recently named as the heir to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion; Mark O’Connor, a classical violinist/fiddler who performs with symphonies; and Chris Pandolfi, banjo player with The Infamous Stringdusters.
“You have these people who start out with this great talent base, they go to Berklee College of Music, and they can reinterpret things that they’ve heard,” says Martin, referring to Boston’s premiere music conservatory. “And honestly, if they get too far afield [from Bluegrass] they’d probably lose their audience, so they have to keep it real.”
Martin’s interviews reveal Bluegrass as a genre of universal appeal which attracts uniquely talented individuals. Case in point, Mason Williams.
Williams studied music, had a folk career, but is probably best known for his 1968 instrumental, Classical Gas. As Martin discovered, that was just a sliver of his resume.
“He was the head writer for the Roger Miller Show, head comedy writer for the Smother’s Brother’s Show, came up with the Pat Paulsen for President concept, and is a visual artist,” says Martin. “He connects to early ‘60’s folk singing all the way through Bluegrass, then semi-classical orchestra. He’s the most inventive guy I think I’ve ever interviewed.”
Sit and chat like no one is listening
Each week, Martin – whether by design, skilled lawyering, or simply virtue of what he wants to know – asks questions that trigger the stories artists enjoy telling. His style is to step out of the way of a good story.
“It’s what I do with witnesses on the stand – help them get their messages out,” says Martin, who practices with the firm Ziegler & Schneider in Crescent Springs. “I think people know that I’m not going to leave them high and dry. They’ll tell me things, and say, “Don’t tell anyone, “ and I say, “There are people listening.”
Unreal Bluegrass first aired in August 2012, via the Worldwidebluegrass.com Internet radio network, and remained there until October 2014, when it found a new home on the Bluegrass Mix Network. The show airs live from Martin’s home in Edgewood, where guests call in from around the world.
“I think one of the advantages I had was that I had no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m not allowed to do, “ says Martin. “I thought, ‘well, if I want to talk to somebody for an hour, if I want to talk to Tom and Dixie Hall for an hour, I’ll talk to them for an hour.”
Among the 186 archived guests are Robert Earl Keen, Roy Clark, Larry Cordle, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, Rhonda Vincent, Maria Muldaur, and Tony Trischka. But a perennial favorite is Sonny Osborne, perhaps best known for the Osborne Brothers’ famous recording, Rocky Top.
“The best part of Steve’s show is his attitude toward the business – or banjo business. He’s a banjo player and so it’s easy to talk to someone who knows a little about banjos, in general,” says Osborne. “Another great thing is he does his homework. If he has someone on his show, he makes it his business to know about that person.”
In the show’s earliest days, Osborne made nearly 20 appearances.
“We talked it up, talked about it, and he arranged for a few other people to be on,” says Osborne. “The word spread, and at one point people were almost lining up to be on, so with that kind of reception among the entertainers, I would take from that the impact was pretty strong.”
In the beginning, there was Bonnie and Clyde
The show’s popularity is impressive for a Kentucky boy whose first acquaintance with Bluegrass came from the big screen.
“I grew up in Elsmere, and we walked up to the local theatre on Dixie Highway in Erlanger, a bunch us went to see Bonnie and Clyde. In the movie, when they were driving away, Foggy Mountain Breakdown is playing and I’m wondering, ‘what is that sound? How can they even do that’? We walked back home and the other guys would say, “How many times were they shot?” Or, “Wasn’t Faye Dunaway gorgeous?” But what I kept thinking was, “How do you make that sound?”
For the longest time he didn’t have the answer to that question because he had no one to ask. He figured it out while in college. He bought a banjo, and a book by Earl Scruggs, and was set to learn. His tutelage began just as Newgrass, or Progressive Bluegrass, was coming on the scene. His course of study took him through the styles of Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, and J.D. Crowe.
The opportunity that led to interviewing some of the very musicians who inspired Martin was spawned from a friendly gesture.
Martin met Gary Strong, a local Bluegrass radio host on WOBO 88.7 radio in Batavia., OH. When Strong said he was in need of volunteers at the station, Martin offered his help.
“I went over there with Gary and there are all these buttons and he says, “Do this for awhile.” I’d never done it,” says Martin. “He said, “Keep pushing buttons until you hear something. If you’re not hearing it, it’s probably not going over the airwaves.“ I have two minutes to figure what I’m doing and I see him leaving. He’s gone. He takes his dog and goes down to Wendy’s and I’m there alone. He told me later, “I figured you’d learn faster if you just had to do it.”
A quick study, Martin hosts WOBO’s The Real Jazz Conversation, Wednesday evenings 9 p.m. to midnight. Moviegoers might catch a glimpse of him as an extra in Don Cheadle’s Miles Away, about jazz great Miles Davis which was shot in Cincinnati.
But his Saturday afternoons belong to Bluegrass; that is, until Alison Krauss comes around.
“When I started doing this, I told Abby, our daughter, I’m going to do this until this happens, and I’ll quit when it occurs: If I ever talk to Bela [Fleck] on the show; if I ever talk to Steve Martin on the show; and if I ever get to interview Alison Krauss,” says Martin. “Well, I can’t get that interview with Alison.”
In the meantime, the very real ‘Unreal” Martin remains a humble man too.
“I get calls from all over the airways. It’s touching to me,” says Martin. “The Saturday show is strictly Internet and it’s growing.”