Punch Brother Noam Pikelny shares Steve Martin's banjo love

The Punch Brothers with Noam, second at left

Editor's note: Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny was the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass award in 2010. He has since been nominated for a Grammy for his 2011 solo album Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail. We dialed him up to talk about receiving Steve Martin's musical award, and he waxed so rhapsodic that we decided to print his entire tribute to Steve in full. Our cover stars Steve Martin and Martin Short are coming to Old National Centre this weekend with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Read Ed's memories of performing with Martin Short, plus an interview with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and, oh yeah, our chat with Steve and Marty.

This award for Banjo and Bluegrass is still fairly new. I think Steve and his wife Anne [Stringfield], they dreamt this award up about five or six years ago. I think that from conversations with him and a few things that I've read, I think he had this real sense of amazement at how the banjo and bluegrass playing field had widened in the few decades that he had kind of taken a backseat to music.

Some people are surprised, who haven't been following Steve Martin forever, that banjo has been a serious passion for him for 40 years. He's always been a really wonderful, professional-quality banjo player. When he recommitted to playing banjo and making records and writing music again, probably a decade ago, he jumped head-first back into the community. I think he was really impressed by these players kind-of everywhere. It made an impact on him. Not that banjo or bluegrass had become more mainstream, but I think there was a level of interest and a level of proficiency on these instruments that was dissimilar to the way that it was maybe 40 years ago, or 30 years ago.

He dreamt this prize up with his wife and put together a board of the best banjo players — at least the people who are my heroes — and some of the people who have had the most profound impact on the banjo in the last few decades. I was absolutely honored to be the first recipient of this award. It was a complete shock. I was totally blindsided by it. There was no anticipation of, "Who's gonna win the award this year?" because when I found out I had won the award, it was when I and everyone else found out the award existed.

It was a real shot in the arm for me. We had the tremendous fortune of being able to go on the Dave Letterman show with Steve Martin to play with Punch Brothers. We played "Rye Whiskey" with Steve Martin sitting in, which was incredible publicity for us. Still to this day, people will come up to me after shows and tell me that's how they learned about Punch Brothers and that's how they learned about my music. So that's been a real boon for us.

The time I've gotten to spend with Steve Martin as a result of that award and the musical relationship and friendship that has grown out of that is really a cherished relationship for me. He is an absolute inspiration in so many ways. But I think that the most profound thing about Steve is that he really lives passionately. He's so passionate about his interests that there's nothing that's just scratching the surface.

When he becomes interested in music, he goes all the way. He's the same way with art, and obviously with comedy and writing and now a Broadway musical [Bright Star, written with Edie Brickell and due to debut on Broadway in early 2016]. It's the perfect example for me of somebody who can continually be reinventing themselves and furthering themselves. The fact that he has such a portfolio of things that he's interested in and things he's pursuing has to spill over into the various disciplines. I think that when you're curious about art and curious about theater, I think that impacts the way you write music, the way you present music. I find that to be such an amazing example, and the gold standard for me of the way to live a life in the arts.

I obviously am so grateful and honored to have won the award. The financial component of it really helped me make a record that came out in 2011 a year after the award. All of those obvious benefits of it. But the time that we've gotten to spend around Steve has really made an impact on me. He's really just a great role model and an example of how to live a life completely immersed in the arts.


Editor of NUVO Newsweekly since 2016; formerly Music Editor. Lover of justice, cats, local hip-hop, axe-throwing, sailing and pies. Hater of fake news.

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