Steve Martin: The Broadcaster ...Not the Comedian
by Susan Marquez
Steve Martin. The International Bluegrass Music Association honors him, and bluegrass artists across the globe respect him and his playing.
However, this Steve Martin hasn’t starred in movies or appeared on Saturday Night Live. An attorney and radio broadcaster and developer of a popular syndicated radio program, this Steve Martin was nominated in 2017 and 2018 as Broadcaster of the Year, winning the award in 2018 for the radio program Steve Martin’s Unreal Bluegrass he has hosted since 2013. He is also a board member of the IBMA.
To say that Steve’s journey into radio happened organically is an understatement. “I’m a trial lawyer,” he says. With no background in broadcasting whatsoever, he asked a friend in radio if he might need some help. “I had no technical background, but he trained me on Saturday mornings for about six months. A couple of time slots were available, and I said I’d like to put together a bluegrass show and a jazz show. The station hired me on a probationary basis for six months, and at the end of my probationary period, the board of directors let me go.”
That could have ended Steve’s broadcast side gig. Yet Steve was bitten by the broadcast bug, and he especially liked doing a bluegrass show.
“I called Gracie Muldoon, the founder of WorldWideBluegrass.com, and she told me she had a spot for me on Saturday evening.” The live show kicked off with a Sonny Osborne interview.
“Sonny had become a good friend, and over several months, I recorded about twenty hours of interviews with him. I had no idea what I was doing technically. I purchased a speaker from Radio Shack that I plugged into the telephone, and I would adjust the speaker to get the sound quality I wanted.”
Today the three-hour program is recorded in Steve’s home in Covington, Kentucky, and he sends it out as a file.
“I try to record it early in the week and get it out to the stations. Different stations run it on different days and times, seven times each week on six different stations.”
The show has a specific format. Each installment opens with an original song, “Pick Peace,” a gift to Steve from Thomm Jutzz and Milan Miller. The broadcast ends with Keith Arneson’s contribution, an instrumental original also entitled “Pick Peace.”
Steve’s love of bluegrass started back in the mid-1970s. “I started playing the banjo. I really liked jazz music, but I began listening to bluegrass as well. I was familiar with Flatt and Scruggs, but I had to special order Foggy Mountain Breakdown from the record store. There was a guy who played jazz bass, Christian McBride. I saw him on stage with Bela Fleck and Sam Bush at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.” That piqued Steve’s interest in bluegrass music.
The list of people Steve has interviewed for his radio show is staggering. “I’ve done over four hundred interviews,” he says. In addition to interviewing the top stars of the bluegrass world, Steve also interviews up-and-coming musicians and those involved in the bluegrass industry, including luthiers, songwriters, producers, record companies, and more. He says some interviews are easier than others.
“I try to put all my guests at ease, and my interviews are like a conversation with a friend. I remember the interview with a guy who owns the company that makes the thumb pics I use. He was absolutely terrified. He did the entire interview from behind closed doors in his bathroom. But when it was done, and I played it back for him, he was surprised at how good he sounded.”
He does most interviews by phone, but he travels from time to time. He interviewed Dolly Parton in a studio in Nashville, and he often conducts interviews at festivals and IBMA. And yes, he interviewed the other Steve Martin, who also plays banjo.
“I have had the opportunity to interview Steve Martin three times,” he says. “He is really a quiet, shy guy. The comedian the public sees is his persona on stage. He is extremely humble, and he is passionate about his music.”
Steve interviews some not immediately recognized as bluegrass artists, such as Maria Muldaur and Don McLean. “I always look for the bluegrass connection. In the interview with Don McLean, he talked about his love for bluegrass and how he learned to play banjo from Pete Seeger and Mike Kropp.”
Steve says he doesn’t get starstruck very often, but he was excited about his interview with Tom T. Hall and Miss Dixie. “That was an exciting one for me. Of course, the interviews I did with my friend, Sonny Osborne, were special to me as well.”
Steve is fearless when it comes to asking for interviews. He has built relationships with publicists and record labels, and they now contact him to see about setting up interviews. Steve would love to interview Paul McCartney but has been unsuccessful in scheduling one. “I’ve tried,” he laughs. “I have talked with his publicist in the United States a few times.”
Steve continues to practice law with Ziegler & Scheider. “My colleagues don’t always appreciate my radio gig, but when there is someone on I think they’ll enjoy listening to, I’ll tell them, and they tune in.”
His wife, Susan, enjoys his shows. Their daughter Abby will soon be graduating from nursing school. “She is also a gifted musician,” says Steve. “She plays the piano, guitar, and flute.”