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Inside the banjo players' studio: Ed Helms and Steve Martin talk frailing, fingering and timing

This Sunday, Steve Martin headlines the final night of the Bluegrass Situation, a four-night festival curated by fellow actor and fellow banjo enthusiast Ed Helms. If it’s anything like the concert Martin did at the same festival last year, you can expect Helms to get on stage with Martin for at least one number and partake in… you know… banjos that duel.

Martin and Helms sat down for a conversation about their mutual bluegrass obsession, much of which appears in a story in today’s Times. As a bonus, here is some more of their dialogue, including everything you wanted to know about the clawhammer style but were afraid to ask. 

Los Angeles Times: As actors and musicians, do you find there’s anything at all that transfers intuitively from one discipline to the other? Can musical timing inform comedic timing, or vice versa?

Ed Helms: Well, I’ve been told my banjo playing is hilarious. I don’t know how to take that.

Steve Martin: Well, I think that comedic timing is a mystery, and musical timing is not. It’s exactly timing. It’s just timing.

So musical timing is a little more scientific in some way?

Martin: I don’t know. You could make an argument both ways, I guess. You could argue that off-timing in comedy is… Who has off-timing in comedy? Bill Murray has off-timing. And so does Christopher Walken. He’s not a comedian, but he has off-time readings.

Helms: Or Christopher Guest.

Martin: Yeah. But off-timing in music, too, can work. But everybody has to agree!

How did you two first meet?

Helms: We met through Noam (Pickelny, of the Punch Brothers). I freeloaded a lunch here at Steve’s house when Steve invited the Punch Brothers over for lunch. We’re both fans of the band.

Martin: Noam Pickelny is the banjo player for that band, and he came over, because the two of us were going to be there and he wanted to learn. That’s a joke.

You probably don’t run into a lot of fellow banjo players in your main line of work. There’s Billy Connelly, I know.

Martin: I’m trying to think, what other celebrity banjo players are there? Billy Connelly, you mentioned.

Helms: Oh, Kevin Nealon.

Martin: Kevin Nealon, that’s it. I knew there was one other one. That’s probably it, I’m guessing.

Helms: And Noam Pickelny.

Martins: [dryly] Yeah, his movies are great.

Ed, how many years have you been at this?

Helms: I first picked up a banjo when I was about 18. I actually learned it for a musical that my high school was doing called The Cotton Patch Gospel, which was a bluegrass musical written by Harry Chapin and Tom Keith. I then really didn’t play much banjo for the next eight to nine years. In New York, some college buddies and I formed the Lonesome Trio, but I played guitar with those guys. It’s really been the last probably eight or nine years or so that I’ve kind of made a concerted effort to get better at banjo.

Helms: I was looking forward to meeting Steve for numerous reasons. I don’t want to gush, I’ll embarrass myself. But yeah. Aside, I think, from the obvious comedy inspiration that I’ve gotten from being a fan of Steve’s for a long, long time, it was a real pleasure to learn “The Crow” and to play it on stage with Steve—it’s just a wonderful song.

Steve, you didn’t play much publicly between 1980 [the end of the standup years] and 2000. Did you keep up with your practicing that whole time?

Martin: I played. Sometimes I laid off… What helped me was when I put a banjo in every room. Because if I’m in the bedroom,  I go “I don’t know if I want to go back to the living room to get the banjo,” So I put one in every room, and I found I’d pick it up more. I had enough.

Helms: That’s a good idea. Do you have a banjo in the bathroom?

Martin: You don’t want to hear a banjo coming out of the bathroom.

Helms: I’ve got one in the shower… in the sauna.

So what made you think it was time to go public with it again in recent years?

Martin: Earl Scruggs asked me to play on a group album—to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with him, which is his classic song. I went to the studio and Earl was there and they put it on, and I was expecting to go… [He plays the song on banjo at a moderate pace.] The thing came on and it was like… [He ups the speed to lightning pace.] I said “Guys. I could keep up, but I couldn’t do any fancy stuff at all.” They said, “You were playing so good.” “No, I’m telling you, I’m lucky to get there…” Anyway, I started playing [the banjo] again. But instead of playing the traditional songs, which I just play half as good as anybody else, I just wrote my own songs. Then I realized I had a dozen, enough to make an album.

Ed, are you, like Steve, a “master of the five-finger clawhammer”?

Helms: Ha ha. No, I can’t play clawhammer at all. [He suddenly looks puzzled.] “Five-finger clawhammer”?

Martin: That [came from] a New York Times error. It’s not called five-finger. Only in the wildest stretch could you call it five-finger. It’s just two-finger.

Helms: It’s not even referred to in finger numbers.

Martin: Yeah. That’s like saying “the three-fingered three-finger style.”

Helms: “Oh, you play 10-finger piano?”

Martin: You just call it clawhammer, or frailing. And by the way, I’m not a master. That’s another error. Somebody said that to him, to the writer. I am way better than a master.

Helms: I just play three-finger bluegrass.

But, um…

Helms: That IS referred to in finger numbers—the Scruggs three-finger style. It’s a little different. I’m not as versatile as Steve.

There was a time when country music avoided the banjo like the plague. But it’s made a reappearance in country music in recent years—even if it's just there to help signify the music as country. It seems like the stigma is gone in that genre.

Martin: Well, my impression of it was that the banjo was banned from country music because it made it sound square or something. Then I was watching the American Music Awards… and all the country bands had a banjo. The guy stood there playing, but everything was so loud you couldn’t hear it at all. It was just completely drowned out. So it had no presence at all.

Helms: It was only to serve as a visual…?

Martin: Maybe, but I mean, it was sort of banned before, even visually. But now it’s back. But you know what? I don’t care. I really don’t care. I think it’s so beautiful, you know? And it’s for people who think it’s beautiful. And maybe that's a limited number, I don’t know. I never think of it as corny or anything. The way people are playing it now is so not corny. It might have been corny… I think people actually confuse it with the four-string banjo. They’re thinking of… [He plays "Ain’t She Sweet," plucking it.] It’s not that, it’s something completely different, it’s the five-string. And that’s the difference.

Do you think it’s all bluegrass lovers coming to your shows, Steve, or is there some conversion to be done?

Martin: When we play bluegrass for people, I think I draw—I’m just guessing—50% of people don’t know bluegrass. A lot of ‘em do know, because we’ll name a bluegrass song and they’ll go yayyyy! So I’m just wondering if [the non-fans] don’t have access to it—because every time they hear it, they seem to love it—or if they are just overwhelmed by popular music… You know, I think one of the problems is that a lot of it has that Bill Monroe nasal high singing.

Helms: High lonesome.

Martin: Well, high lonesome is OK, but it’s got that falsetto singing, and I think people are a little afraid of that somehow. That does sound hillbilly. Although it’s not—really, it’s not. It just sounds it… When we played New York City and had Ralph Stanley open, they loved him. He sang “O Death.” And I think half the people knew who he was, and they were avid, that half. And the rest of the people just thought “That guy is great”—people like Mike Nichols, you know what I mean.

When you go to festivals in other parts of the country, bluegrass can draw the most diverse audiences. You see the people you can peg as NPR-listening, granola-eating people, and then some people who might have the Confederate flag on their cars, and a lot of other incongruous types as well.

Helms: I’ve been going to East Coast festivals for about eight years, and I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year, and the cross-section is staggering. Like you said, there’s the Deadheads—the sort of hippie crowd that’s still into it. Jerry Garcia was a great banjo player, and there’s weird crossover there. Then you have executives, like Warren Hellman, the founder of Hardly Strictly [the annual bluegrass-based festival in San Francisco]. He’s a financier, which is not the profile of a typical bluegrass fan. It just strikes a chord and crosses all lines.

And obviously being in the community of musicians has an appeal for you both.

Helms: The energy that comes out of people getting together for music is so positive and fun. And bluegrass festivals in particular foster jam sessions, which is just strangers getting together and playing great music. It’s just a really special, unique format.

Martin: It’s kind of humbling, too. Because I can keep up and play a decent banjo, but I’m by no means a maestro. And to be in the company of amazing bluegrass players, such as the Punch Brothers and the Steep Canyon guys, it’s delightfully humbling, and inspiring.

Helms: People who don’t know each other and don’t have a background can really make a pretty nice connection instantly.

Martin: You don’t have to say where you’re from, or “I like your work.” You just are in this other world that’s automatically [understood]. Playing together is like an icebreaker, somehow. Then you get to know each other later. Like, five years later. Or never.

RELATED:

Ed Helms and Steve Martin bond over bluegrass

Steve Martin and Ed Helms get a little punchy

-- Chris Willman

 

 

 
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