Steve Martin: The Disneyland kid plays his banjo

I've been lucky enough to be in a town where people love banjos and fiddles and stuff. That isn't always the case; many people are startled that Steve Martin -- approximately the coolest guy in the universe -- plunks a banjo.

With Martin coming to town for a Steep Canyon Rangers concert, I had a chance to read his autobiography and interview one of the Rangers. There wasn't room for one of the stories, so I thought I'd put it here:



Opposite lives link, each time Steve
Martin performs with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

Martin is rich, famous and 67; he's
Hollywood, by way of Disneyland. Charles Humphrey III, a
maybe-typical Ranger, is 35 and North Carolina. Here are brief

– This started as a sort of
punishment, Humphrey recalled. “If we were making too much noise in
the car, my dad would put on his bluegrass album.”

Except that Humphrey started to like
the music. He studied classical music – from middle school in
Greenville to college at the University of North Carolina – but
always with hopes for more.

In college, he said, Graham Sharp and
Woody Platt were jamming on banjo and guitar. “I said, 'Hey, I
play. We just started as a dorm band.”

Platt's friend Mike Guggino had a
mandolin, a mountain cabin and a knowledge of bluegrass roots. A
far-ranging band began. “The main strength of the Rangers quickly
became their songwriting, (which) appealed to bluegrass, country,
folk, blues and jam-band fans,” said.

The final pieces were the addition of
Nicky Sanders – a classically trained violinist-turned-fiddler –
in2004 and the link to Martin in 2009. Now the group sometimes flies
cross-country for gigs … and Humphrey no longer has to buy a
separate ticket for his instrument.

Charlie Chadwick is a Nashville bass
player who invented a folding bass. He started playing one in 2004
and began selling them for $3,000 in 2009. “It takes me five
minutes to take it down or set it up,” Humphrey said. “That's
been a big change.” That and touring with a Hollywood star.

– Two important things happened in
1955: Disneyland opened and the Martin family moved nearby.

At 10, Steve sold guidebooks outside
the gate, pocketed two cents from each sale and roaming the park in
the afternoon. At 13, he helped demonstrate rope tricks. At 15, he
worked eight-hour days at the magic shop, “made possible by lax
child-labor laws and my high school, which assigned no homework,”
he wrote in his autobiography (Scribner, 2007).

On one hand, he sees himself as
“fundamentally shy”; on the other, he was obsessed with being on
stage and getting attention. He ranged from magic tricks to juggling
to a hillbilly comedy act at Knott's Berry Farm. Somehow, all of that
blended into his stand-up act. “My teenage attempt at a magician's
grace was being transformed into an awkward comic grace,” he wrote.

This was an act that mixed sight gags
and verbal wit, the goofy and the clever. “The act was becoming
simultaneously smart and stupid,” he wrote.

And successful. “I was now the
biggest concert comedian in show business, ever. I was elated.”

He was also dejected. Working to
mega-crowds, there was no room to be subtle, little room to take
change. “I experienced a depression caused by exhaustion, isolation
and creative ennui.”

And then, with a hit movie (“The
Jerk”) behind him, he quit. In the 31 years since then, he's never
done stand-up. Instead, he had made more movies and had a life. He
spent years with co-star Bernadette Peters, married Victoria Tennant
and now writer Anne Stringfield. He collected art, wrote plays and –
in his mid-'60s – became a music star with his boyhood instrument,
the banjo.


Somehow, ABC has become the Nashville network

When it comes to sheer program quality, I put ABC and its program director, Paul Lee, at the top. Now Lee -- an Oxford man, no less -- presides over a busy stretch of country-music shows. Here's the story I sent to papers:


A funny thing has happened to ABC. At
times, it transforms into the country-music channel.

CBS – dominating small-town markets –
used to be the country place. It had Andy Griffith, “Beverly
Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” It had Charles Kuralt on the
road and Dan Rather being folksy.

And ABC? It was the first rock 'n' roll
network, Dick Clark's home base. It's had sophisticated dramas; its
leader (Paul Lee) is an Oxford guy with a Master's degree in modern

“I've loved American music, like most
of us Brits, since I was a kid,” Lee insisted. Now ABC has:

– Wednesdays: “Nashville”(10
p.m.) is off to a decent start in the ratings.

– Thursday: The Country Music
Association awards, once CBS turf, are 8-11 p.m. on Nov.1.

– Friday: “Malibu Country” debuts
at 8:31 p.m.. Reba McEntire plays the wife of a cheating country
star; with her mother and kids, she moves to California and tries to
re-start her own music career.

These interlock neatly. Kimberly
Williams-Paisley begins a multi-episode “Nashville” role on
Wednesday …the day before her husband (Brad Paisley) co-hosts the
CMA's with Carrie Underwood. McEntire performs that night … the day
before her own show debuts.

The timing seems ideal for a country
mini-surg, Lee said. “Country music's having its moment; there are
so many crossover artists.” Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum have
seen their country songs reach the No. 2 spot on Billboard's overall
chart; Swift's albums ump to No. 1 overall.

Now “Nashville”:viewers keep
comparing the lead characters (Juliette and Rayna) to Swift and
McEntire. The actresses who play them disagree:

– “She's much nicer than
(Juliette),” Hayden Panettiere said of Swift. Except for being
young and blonde, she said, they have little in common, “not even
height.” Panettiere, 23, is 5-foot-2; Swift, 22, is 5-foot-11.

– Connie Britton doesn't see Rayna as
McEntire. Still, Rayna – like the woman she played in “Friday
Night Lights” – has similar traits. “Strong Southern women are
also allowed to be soft and feminine and have a sense of humor,”
Britton said. “There's something that I really love about that.”

Rayna faces a familiar Nashville
roadblock: Older singers, especially women, disappear abruptly from
radio and the record labels.

“That is a problem,” said McEntire,
whose “Malibu Country” character also faces age bias. “It is
hard to stay on the radio. There are so many very talented, youthful
people coming up.”

One exception to the youth obsession is
McEntire, still strong at 57. On country charts, she had a No. 1
album in 2009 and a top-30 single in 2010 – 30 years after her
first top-10 single.

“How we do it is to keep as active as
we can and as modern as we can,” McEntire said. “Doing the
television show helps.”

Her shows – “Reba” and “Malibu
Country” – required moving to California, facing the sort of
culture shocks that the latter show is all about.

One night, McEntire said, her husband
Narvel Blackstock went to a school function with their son. “Narvel
had a couple of bologna sandwiches and a paper sack and went to the
country-club-looking school campus. And here comes everybody with
their ice coolers and caviar and tablecloths.”

Culture shocks work both ways; the
Boston-born Britton moved to Virginia at 7. “My mother thought that
she had gone to the middle of nowhere,” she said. “We would still
drive four hours for her to get her hair cut in Washington, D.C.”

Such shocks happen whenever regions
collide – or when a big-city network with an Oxford executive
discovers country music.


The Country Music Association awards
are back. Some details:

– When: 8-11 p.m. Thursday, ABC.

– Hosts: Carrie Underwood and Brad
Paisley; it's their fifth time.

– Ol' Willie: A Willie Nelson medley
will have Blake Shelton, Lady Antebellum, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill;
they'll also perform separately in the show. Nelson, 79, has a
“musical event” nomination for “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I
Die,” with Snoop Dogg, Kris Krstofferson and Jamey Johnson.

– Crossover appeal: Keith Urban,
Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson.

– More people performing: Kenny
Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley,
Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Hunter Hayes.

– More groups: Zac Brown Band, Eli
Young Band, The Band Perry, Little Big Town.

– Nomination leaders: Church has five
nods, three for “Springsteen,” which he co-wrote. Blake Shelton
and Miranda Lambert, who are husband and wife, have four each.

– Entertainer of the year nominees:
Swift and four guys – Paisley, Shelton, Chesney and Aldean.

– More nominees:

Female vocalist: Swift, Underwood,
Lambert, Clarkson, Martina McBride

Male: Shelton, Urban, Aldean, Bryan,

Group: Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band,
The Band Perry, Little Big Town, Eli Young Band.

Duo: Sugarland, Big & Rich, The
Civil War, Thompson Square, Love and Theft

New artist: Hays, Brantley Gilbert, Lee
Brice, Thompson Square, Love and Theft

Album: Lambert, Bentley, Bryan, Church,
Lady Antebellum

Single: “Springsteen,” Church; “God
Gave Me You,” Shelton; “Home,” Bentley; “Dirt Road Anthem,”
Aldean; “Pontoon,” Little Big Town.

Song (songwriters' award):
“Springsteen,” “Home” and “God Gave Me You,” plus
Lambert's “Over You”: and the Eli Young Band's “Even If It
Breaks Your Heart”

“Musical event”: “Feel Like a
Rock Star,” Chesney and McGraw; “Safe and Sound,” Swift and
Civil Wars; “Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band;
“Stuck on You,” Lional Richie and Darius Rucker.

Video: “Springsteen,” “Over You,”
“Pontoon”; plus Chesney's “Come Over,” Toby Keith's” Red
Solo Cup.”

Musician: Sam Bush, Paul Franklin, Dann
Huff, Brent Mason, Mac McAnally



Kellie Martin finds some goofiness between the tears

Kellie Martin has been terrific at her specialty -- dead-serious TV drama -- for decades. Now, however, she occasionally gets to be silly. That includes a fun-enough movie that debuts this weekend, Oct. 20-21. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Kellie Martin get a chance to be silly
now. Consider that the universe being fair.

“I've had plenty of chances to cry,”
she said.

She has, you know. She's been acting
for 30 of her 37 years and spent a chunk of her teens doing
Emmy-nominated and wrenching work on”Life Goes On.” When her own
series (“Crisis Center”) started, she failed (before the opening
credits) to stop a suicide. When she became an “ER” regular
(shortly after her own sister died of lupus), her character was
brutally assaulted.

There's been more, but Hallmark seems
to be on a one-channel mission to reverse that. Last year was
“Smooch,” in which her daughter thought her frog has turned into
a man; as luck would have it, the man she found was a handsome and
amnesiac prince.

And now comes “I Married Who?”
Martin plays a sober young woman who accidentally gets drunk and
marries a TV star, then must explain this to her fiance.

Such things don't happen much in real
life – except the part about a normal person marrying a TV star.
Martin met Keith Christian, at Yale; “He had no idea who I was,
because he grew up on a ranch in Montana,” she said.

That was during her TV-movie phase –
“If Someone Had Known,” “A Friend to Die For,” etc. Extending
her spring break slightly, she even had the title role in “The Face
On the Milk Carton.”

Martin went on to get her degree in art
history; Christian got a law degree. Now they've been married 13
years and have a daughter who's almost 6. They split their lives
between California, Montana and South Carolina, where she's an “Army
Wives” regular.

It's a good life, Martin says. And on
occasion, Hallmark lets her be goofy.

– “I Married Who?”

– 9 and 11p.m. Saturday (Oct. 20) and 1 and 9 p.m.
Sunday, Hallmark Channel


"Ethel": A warm portrait of an unconventional life

Sure, the best kind of documentary is unbiase, impartial, skeptical. Still, there's something to be said for the loving piece by an insider.

Earlier, HBO had an excellent George H.W. Bush portrait, done by his friend. Now it has a delightful Ethel Kennedy one, by her daughter. Here's the story I sent to papers:


To outsiders, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy
seemed like a precise match.

Each was lean, athletic, competitive.
Each grew up in a family that was big, rich and Catholic.

Still, there were huge differences.
“The Kennedys were very organized,” Ethel, the subject of a new
HBO documentary, told reporters. “Dinner was always served at 7:15;
if you were a minute late, it really wasn't worth it. In my family
(the Skakels), you never knew when dinner was going to be. It could
be at 7 o'clock; it could be at 10.”

There were bigger differences, on the
political side. The Skakels were Republicans, the Kennedys were
Democrats; Ethel was a spirited campaigner, Bobby was a reluctant

As they raised their own family, they
came closest to the Kennedy tradition. Dinners were organized,
especially, she said, the Sunday ones:

“Everyone going around the table had
to tell something about what was going on in the world,” she said.
“It was an adult conversation and they responded to it beautifully
.... I think it helped make them aware that there are a lot of people
out there who don't live the way they live and who need help.”

Some of the kids became activists or
politicians. The youngest, Rory, became a documentary-maker who has
received an Emmy (for “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) and strong
praise for others, especially “American Hollow,” her classic
Appalachian portrait.

Still, she avoided, films about her
family. Eventually, after much nudging by HBO, she asked her mother
and was surprised to get a yes. “She hadn't done an interview in 20
or 25 years.”

So Rory interviewed her mother and
siblings. Usually, she said, “we're not kind of a 'share all'
family.” So she was hearing things she'd never known, like “the
sea mammal that she would have in the car, picking up the kids”
from school. Or the suggestion.

Touring J. Edgar Hoover's FBI with some
of her kids, Ethel Kennedy saw a suggestion box. Using her
distinctive pen, she suggested: “Get a new director.”

Looking back at that comment now, she's
sheepish. “It was rude,” she said, “and I apologize for that.”

Her daughter, however, finds it
typical. “Throughout my life, my mother has been somebody who
speaks truth to (powerful people), very freely and openly and often.”

Rory Kennedy recalls the time that she
and her brother Douglas wanted to join a Washington protest against
Apartheid in South Africa. She was hesitant to ask her mother.

“Without missing a beat, she said,
'Great, I'll drive you down there. Let's go right now.'

“And, you know, we drove down and we
got arrested and she couldn't have been more proud.”

– “Ethel,” 9 p.m. Thursday, HBO,
repeating overnight at 4:30 a.m.

– Also: 1:45 p.m. Sunday, 6:45 p.m.
Oct. 24, 9:45 a.m. Oct. 27, 3:15 p.m. Oct. 29


"Underemployed" is an overachieving comedy-drama

Sometimes, happy surprises show up at odd times and places. One of those is "Underemployed," which debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on MTV.

That's while the presidential debate is still going on. You can safely catch the debate, because "Underemployed" repeats instantly at 11:04 -- and often after that. Just make sure you catch it; I found the opener to be a dandy comedy-drama blend, full of characters worth knowing. Here' the story I sent to papers:


There's one subject actors are experts
in. That's being “Underemployed,” the title of MTV's new series.

To many people, that phenomenon –
college grads, settling for being temps and interns and such – is
new to a modern generation. Actors, however, this has always been
making do with odd jobs.

“I was getting a lot of (personal
assistant) work, which was almost soul-crushing,” Michelle Ang
said. There she was, working “on set ,around actors doing what I
would want to do. But I was … taking out the trash and getting

Sarah Habel, another “Underemployed”
star, actually liked her getting-by job. “I love waitressing,”
she said. “Waitressing is fun.”

Still, she said, it had its bad days.
“This woman changed her baby's diaper at the table and then handed
me the dirty diaper to throw away.”

Such moments have been part of actors'
lives for generations. In New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, they
pack into tiny apartments, grab odd jobs and wait for the big break.

The difference lately is that others
have found that same world;many college grads have scrambled. “The
show is based on my son, who is 23, (and) his friends,” Craig
Wright said.

Wright is a playwright who has been
focusing lately on TV dramas, as a writer and producer of “Six Feet
Under,””Brothers & Sisters,” “Dirty, Sexy Money” and
more. This time, he's created an hour-long comedy-drama, based on
young people he knows.

“My son is interested in
architecture,” Wright said. “His friend Miles is a model. His
friend Sofia was a writer. I tended to follow reality.” His show

– Sofia, an aspiring novelist,
working at a doughnut shop. She's played by Ang, 28, a TV star in
Australia and New Zealand (with Malaysian roots), who had to start
over when she moved to the U.S.

– Miles, a would-be model. He's
played by Diego Boneta, 21, the only actor viewers are likely to
recognize. He had recurring roles in two teen dramas – Javier in
“90210,” Alex in “Pretty Little Liars” – and was the male
lead in the “Rock of Ages” movie. “It's been an amazing ride,”
he said.

– Lou, working on environmental
causes, and his girlfriend Daphne, a singer. They're played by Jared
Kusnitz, 23 (Toby in “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”)
and Habel.

They share a life with Raviva (Inbar
Lavi), a Russian immigrant who rarely speaks or and rarely intakes
calories. Viewers might assume they have a difficult life.

Still, there's the flip side. The late
Jonathan Larson said he loved his years he depicted in “Rent,”
with friends packing into a New York apartment. Habel finds that

“It's the friendships,” she
said.”It's the urban family that you create when you're fresh out
into theworld and you don't have that same safety net that you do
growing up.”

It can be a fun time – even if life
sometimes hands you a dirty diaper.

– “Underemployed,” 10 p.m.
Tuesdays, MTV.

– Debuts Oct. 16; rerunning at 11:04
p.m. and 2 a.m.

– Reruns each day, including
Wednedsday at 8 p.m. and midnight; then 4 and 9 p.m.Thursday; 11:30
a.m. and 6 p.m.Friday; 11 a.m. Saturday; 3:20 and 11 p.m. Sunday, 1
p.m.Monday; and 9 p.m. Oct. 23, leading into the second episode.