Steve Martin is not only a talented comedian, but also a word-class banjoist. Lately, he has made a second career playing bluegrass music as a solo act and with the Steep Canyon Rangers. During the late ‘60s and ‘70s, though, as Martin was rising to prominence as a standup comedian, he notably used the banjo as part of his act. Martin not only got a lot of laughs by using the banjo for humor, but also proved that he is a talented musician deeply rooted in the instrument’s history.
The late Earl Scruggs is the most important and influential banjoist of all time. His work with rhythm guitarist Lester Flatt established the bluegrass template for decades to come. The Foggy Mountain Boys became culturally recognizable in the ‘40s and ‘50s for their radio program on WSM and their short-lived, yet highly influential, TV show. For many, Flatt and Scruggs still represent the public face of both bluegrass music and the banjo.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, an Earl Scruggs instrumental, might just be the most famous banjo song of all time. This fame is justified, for it is a catchy and spirited tune. It was written in 1949, but became well-known after its prominent inclusion on the soundtrack of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. The movie represented the birth of the New Hollywood, and the instrument was there at the inception. The tune was further associated with the ‘60s counterculture when Scruggs performed the song during the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. It experienced a resurgence in popularity more recently when Scruggs won a 2001 Grammy award for his performance of the tune with Albert Lee, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Paul Shaffer, and more.
Plenty of banjoists and bluegrass musicians probably wish that “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” had never been written. Unfortunately, many people associate the banjo only with this silly TV show about backwoods hillbillies who become Los Angeles millionaires. For better or worse, the banjo roll featured prominently in this tune is probably the most recognizable bit of banjo music ever recorded. It didn’t hurt that Flatt and Scruggs themselves appeared on the ‘60s CBS sitcom.
It might come as a surprise that the song “Dueling Banjos” was written in 1955 by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. It didn’t become a worldwide pop culture phenomenon, though, until it appeared in the 1972 film Deliverance. It has been featured in TV commercials and covered by musicians of every instrument (“Dueling Banjos” has become “Dueling Harmonicas”, “Dueling Accordions”, and more). The “banjo battle” has become a prominent rite of passage for young musicians, one akin to the “cutting contests” of jazz musicians during the ‘30s and ‘40s. As long as there are banjo players, there will probably be “Dueling Banjos”.