Steve Martin caught the music and media world unawares with his 2009 album, The Crow. It featured him on banjo, along with a bevy of country, folk and bluegrass icons on 15 new songs Martin had written.
Martin also sang many of those new compositions, and his many fans from the comedy and film worlds where he has excelled for 40 years weren’t sure what to make of all this. Of course, he had used banjo in his comedy act in the 1970s, but more as a prop or a gag. But he played it well, and with a clear appreciation and understanding of bluegrass music.
I recall as a young student of the banjo in 1978, enjoying his hot-picking version of Sally Gooden, which served as the B side of his hit single, King Tut.
But the banjo dropped away, especially as Martin moved into movie work, writing and starring in such memorable hit films as The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, All Of Me and Roxanne during the 1980s. Many more followed, and the critical acclaim and financial success afforded Martin the freedom to pursue his artistry in other realms. After trying his hand at art history and criticism, and playwriting, the banjo world was only too pleased to welcome him back in ’09.
I had the chance to speak with Steve a short time ago about his return to the 5 string, and the release of his second CD, Rare Bird Alert, which is available today on Rounder Records.
With an eye towards all these many artistic accomplishments, I wondered whether it was fair to call him a Renaissance man.
“Well… I don’t consider myself a Renaissance man, because that would mean that Leonardo would have had to have played banjo.
I do three things now. I act, write and play music. Going out on the road can be a bit difficult, but it does bring me the most satisfaction.
I just love to play banjo. I get the greatest satisfaction and fulfillment from playing. Like writing prose, it is something that you are completely in charge of. With a movie, there are so many people who contribute, but this is something that is really controllable personally. You go out and you play your songs and people like them or they don’t.”
Steve has been touring a good bit this past two years, with Steep Canyon Rangers in tow, and has drawn large audiences across the country, not mention positive critical reaction.
“Its really been nice working with them. We have a good rapport on stage together that I really like a lot. We have a good comedy rapport, but the music is always played dead serious. These guys have the perfect persona for this combination.”
The new CD features Martin in close collaboration with the Rangers, as opposed to The Crow which featured a revolving roster of guest artists. Other than a number of superstar guest vocalists (Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks), all the music on Rare Bird Alert is performed by Steve and the Steep Canyon boys. And this gives the album a true band feel – like a group that has been touring together, which is what they are.
“That was something I really wanted – for it to sound like a band. I had never played in a band regularly until last year when I was touring with the Rangers.
A new round of television appearances start tonight (3/15), with an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. That will be followed on Friday (3/17) with a daytime spot on The View.
“When The Crow came out, they wanted me to come play on The View. I thought ‘You can sell records on The View?’ And my people told me that you absolutely can. ‘You can sell banjo records?’ And they assured me that I could.”
He will also be a guest on The Colbert Report on March 21.
To my ear, Rare Bird Alert essentially breaks down into three types of songs. First there are a number of comedy songs where Martin’s flair for the ha-ha is on display. Jubilation Day is a hilarious angry breakup song told in a familiar call and response format. Women Like To Slow Dance is a reworking of Bile Them Cabbage Down – played at a breakneck speed.
Atheists Don’t Have No Songs, a big hit on his live shows, is an a capella song in the Gospel style, but bemoaning the fact that non-believers have no great uplifting songs to sing.
Atheists Don’t Have No Songs: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/athiests.mp3]
On top of these, Steve reprises King Tut from the 70’s which propelled both he and Saturday Night Live into a much higher orbit. It’s a live track on the CD, recorded on Austin City Limits.
“I had wanted Atheist to be live, so that the listening audience at home can hear laughs. I wanted them to be able to take it in the right spirit.
I put King Tut on because, one… its there, and two… it helps the audience know that we do a live show that’s fun. We don’t go out and just start playing. I go out and do five minutes of talk, so I take away the concern ‘Is he going to be funny, or just stand there with his back to us?’
We play to audiences where half have heard bluegrass before and half haven’t. But it seems that they all leave loving bluegrass.”
The bulk of the music is quite serious, however, and it breaks down further into songs and banjo instrumentals. Here Martin shows himself to be an able banjo player and a clever composer for the instrument. The strongest to my ear is More Bad Weather On The Way, a modern sounding old-timey tune played in clawhammer style.
“Mark Johnson taught me the triplet, hammer-on lick that starts this tune. It felt stupid to just practice the lick over and over, so I decided to make up a song to practice it in.
Sometimes a lyric or title will just come to me and I heard the lyric as I was coming up with the tune. I remembered that old time music would sometimes include just a line of lyric in an instrumental, so there was a precedent for this.
I never intended the title as a metaphor. More like when you’re already snowed in, and you learn that more is coming. The feeling really seems to fit this song.”
More Bad Weather On The Way: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/more_bad_weather.mp3]
For you banjo pickers out there, Steve plays this one in double-C tuning, with his 5th string tuned to a C note. He starts it out with a capo at the 5th fret, and then pulls it off when the song modulates down to C. Great tune!
Martin also wrote a number of songs for the project, and was able to pull in Sir Paul McCartney to sing Best Love, and all three of The Dixie Chicks for You. I asked if he had written those with these superb vocalists in mind.
“No – that came afterwards, when we were thinking who we could get to sing. The Rangers were singing You on stage, and doing a great job of it. Somebody suggested the Chicks, and the Rangers politely stepped aside, but they will do it on the stage show.
Our producer, Tony Trischka’s, son suggested that we ask McCartney to sing Best Love. I had met McCartney at a social function once, but didn’t have any idea how to reach him. [SNL producer] Lorne Michaels knows Paul, and was willing to intercede on my behalf.”
For someone like myself who spent his elementary school years with a tennis racket pretending to be Paul McCartney, and his late teens and beyond studying bluegrass banjo, it is something of a perfect storm of nostalgia to hear Sir Paul singing with twin banjos in an acoustic/bluegrass setting!
Yellow-Backed Fly shows Steve at his strength as both a player and a crafter of songs. It’s a classic fishin’ story featuring clawhammer banjo. Woody Platt of Steep Canyon Rangers excels on this one as well.
Yellow-Backed Fly: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/yellow.mp3]
“I’m very proud of the record – the songs first, but also proud of the group and my playing with the band. We got very lucky with each other. We blend very well and they understand my songs very well, so they contribute to the music and the songs. They see that the songs are dramatic in a way, and they see how to bring that out on stage.”
Regarding Martin’s return to the banjo, I asked what drew him back.
“After I played on that Earl Scruggs album in 2001, I got back into it. I felt like I had gotten rusty, so I started playing again and writing some tunes. I decided to put a banjo in every room of the house to make me play more.
When we started touring for The Crow, it took me a while to be comfortable playing banjo on stage. Just recently Nicky Sanders [Steep Canyon Rangers fiddler] said… ‘You know it was one year ago when we did our first show together?’ It went from me wondering if I could make it through this song, to feeling like I can’t wait to play this song.
Now we’ve got a two hour show and its working. We have songs now from the new CD, and some brand new ones, that are going over really well indeed.
I can’t wait to get back out and start promoting this record.”
Steve also spoke quite highly of Graham Sharp, the full-time banjo player with Steep Canyon Rangers.
“Graham is such a tasty player, essentially playing backup banjo to another banjo. Its subtle and musical, but never trying to show off. He’s completely musical all day, all the time.
Listen to Go Away Stop Turn Around Come Back. There’s this part when its just keeps repeating. Graham manages to make it sound like some sort of Asian instrument. Nicky asked if there was some sort of ukulele in there.
Sometimes he’s the lead banjo, and sometimes it’s me but everything he does sounds great.”
So… is it back to the movie set after a brief spin as a banjo player?
“I kind of do anticipate keeping this going indefinitely. I tell people that I’m a banjo player now – that’s how I make my living.
I like the audiences we are playing for, and I like to purvey the music. I really enjoy it when people enjoy it.”
Rare Bird Alert is a strong recording, without regard to comedy or celebrity status. It stands on its own as a fine album of banjo and string band music, and a good many people should be enjoying it for some time.
You can hear samples from all 13 tracks in iTunes.