Is Steve Martin really good for Bluegrass?

A real royalty check? Perhaps.

Via the always informative Bluegrass blog, comes news of a hilarious post over on showing what he supposes are real royalty checks from his agency. Of course these are occomapnied by a one liner claiming the music industry is dead?

Funny stuff.

But thats not what is bothering me about the whole Steve Martin in Bluegrass thing.

I’ve been pondering this for a while. I’ve seen the viral video of his rendition of the athiest gospel song at Merlefest (See Below). Its cute and well executed. I know he tours with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and they are good, and probably a very entertaining show.

But is Steve Martin really good for Bluegrass? I’m not so sure.

He is a legit student of the banjo. And like any good student of the banjo he idolizes and has preformed with Earl. So thats cool.

But, and its a big BUT, he brings a certain SCHTICK, that most of the Bluegrass world has been trying to LIVE DOWN its entire existence.

Bill Monroe wanted to put a suit and tie on the country music that most of America looked down upon. His goal was to elevate it to an artform, and gain respect from musical world at large.  This is what led acts like Doyle Lawson and Quicksliver to have clauses in their contracts that state something like, “will NEVER play in front of Hay Bales, in a BARN or in Overalls.”

To that end, I think part of what ticked off old Bill so much was Lester and Earl showing up on the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw, because it reinforced the aspects of the music that Bill was trying to move away from. And in some strange way Steve Martin’s comedy is no different.  It somehow ends up being a detriment to those of us who take Bluegrass a small bit more seriously than the average Joe. Tim O’brien and the Red Knuckles schtick was just as bad.

There exists the same problem with all those barn-ditty electric guitar bassed alt-country bands that call themselves bluegrass but wouldn’t know Kenny Baker from James Baker. They proudly order a PBR, and claim the guy wearing overalls on stage is HILARIOUS! But its actually just plain stupid.

Humor has a place in Bluegrass, always has always will. But lets not make funnies to the detriment of the genre.

On any given evening if you stopped by the houses of the millions of Bluegrass instrument players (mandolin players especially) you are just as likely to find them studying tunes by Charlie Parker, Bach, Jacob Do Bandolim, as you are tunes by Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe. Bluegrass fans are serious music fans, and are extremely knowledgeable about music in general, there is no reason to dumb down the music just for a laugh.

“Oh Brother” reached out to MILLIONS of people, in a similar way but where are those people now? Nowhere to be found. It was good music on the soundtrack but the movie again put Bluegrass in the “goofy overalls and hay bale” country schtick context that pop culture can’t seem to stop associating with Bluegrass.

I KNOW Steve Martin means well, and is a serious person. In fact I’ve heard he isn’t all that funny in person at all. But I wish he would just stop all the funny stuff and play some banjo. If you’ve heard his album The Crow then you’ll know he is capable of the seriously good stuff, and doesn’t need to be funny to produce good music.

I guess my frustration is less with Steve and more with how pop-culture frames his participation in Bluegrass and focuses on the schtick and less on the actual quality of the music behind the schtick.

Blah blah, Blah. Here is the Atheist’s gospel song, and it is funny.