Pete Wernick, Steve Martin to Get Their Banjo On in Denver

February 10, 2010 by John Lehndorff for the Camera

[Original Version]

Pete Wernick proved to be the ideal choice to welcome Steve Martin to the stage Oct. 1 when the banjo master and his Hot Rize bandmates co-hosted the International Bluegrass Music Awards.

Martin is a "a man who needs an introduction," Pete Wernick told the music luminaries assembled in Nashville. It's not that the audience hadn't ever seen Steve Martin playing a banjo. It's just that when they did he was also wearing an arrow through his head and telling jokes. The crowd's unspoken question: Is he really serious about the music?

The first time Pete Wernick heard Martin play the banjo in the late 1970s, he did not laugh. "He was a good player -- you could tell in about three seconds that this guy knew his way around a banjo," Wernick said recently. And the funny man's accomplished enough now that the longtime Niwot resident will join Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.

This is high praise, coming as it does from one of the nation's foremost 5-string banjoists. The longtime Niwot resident literally wrote the books on learning to play that twangy instrument and conducts bluegrass camps across the nation.

Wernick got the moniker "Dr. Banjo" because he earned a PhD. in sociology before putting aside academics to focus on music. That fortuitous decision led to the formation in Boulder in 1978 of Hot Rize, the seminal contemporary bluegrass band.

Wernick plays a handful of shows each year with Hot Rize with guitar virtuoso Brian Sutton replacing the late Charles Sawtelle. He performs regularly with his own band, Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (which melds early jazz with bluegrass), and with the young Colorado band Long Road Home.

Everybody knows that Martin stopped doing stand-up and went on to a highly successful career in acting, producing and writing. Less well known, Wernick said, is that Martin continued to play the banjo in his movie set trailer for the next 30 years.

"Steve was a closet player. All of his playing was based on 'I like this song so I'll learn it,' " Wernick said. He learned the way so many players did by mimicking records, slowing the turntable down and figuring it out note by note.

Fast forward to 2001 when the father of the five-string, Earl Scruggs, invited Martin to pick a little on the iconic tune Foggy Mountain Breakdown (made famous in the film Bonnie and Clyde).

That recording won him a shared Grammy and marked Martin's ever-so-slow music coming-out party. Then, in a 2003 interview, Wernick said, "Steve was asked about banjo playing. He said: 'I'm not like a good player. Are you familiar with a band called Hot Rize? I love that banjo player.' "

"Hmmm," Wernick said he thought to himself. "He didn't know my name but there's this incredibly famous guy who likes me. I figured he probably would like to meet me." He asked a mutual banjo-playing buddy, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to forward an e-mail.

Martin messaged back and that's how Wernick came to find himself standing at Steve Martin's front door in New York City. "He was almost as nervous as I was. He said he thought it was cool to meet a professional banjo player," Wernick said.

He quickly discovered that Martin almost never played with anyone else, which made it hard for the two of them to pick tunes together. He had never gone to bluegrass concerts or festivals. "Steve Martin is always a famous person wherever he goes which limits what he can -- and can't, comfortably do," he said.

"He had been writing banjo songs all along. He likes tunes that make him feel something, that convey moods. I encouraged him to write some more and helped him with naming them," Wernick said.

Time was booked in a first class studio owned by Tony Bennett's son. John McEuen was lined up to do most of the producing and name players were lined up for what Martin describes in the liner notes as "the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe."

Wernick said, "My job seemed to be to look at everything and ask 'Is this credible?' Steve wanted to make certain that it didn't seem like a vanity project, a movie star dabbling in music."

The result is "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo" featuring Wernick, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka and Tim O'Brien. It has perched atop the bluegrass music chart since its release in September. It may be the biggest thing to boost the genre since the soundtrack for the film "O Brother Where Art Thou."