Music News & Reviews

Banjo has a permanent spot in Steve Martin's head, and his heart

Actor, musician and writer Steve Martin poses with his banjo backstage before an appearance with the Steep Canyon Rangers band at Largo at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, Friday, March 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Actor, musician and writer Steve Martin poses with his banjo backstage before an appearance with the Steep Canyon Rangers band at Largo at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, Friday, March 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Amid the inside artwork on his new album, Rare Bird Alert, is a diagram that breaks down the "natural language of the subject's faculties." Titled The Symbolical Head of Steve Martin, it assigns portions of the human noggin to every duty currently taken on by one of Hollywood's most prominent multi-taskers.

Some are obvious: areas devoted to "comedian," "actor," "author" and "playwright." Others are less so: "magician," "art collector," "eruditer." And we will leave the section devoted to "human cannonball" for another day.

But the two remaining areas are what interest us today. They are the faculties that bring Martin to Lexington for his first live performance since a sold-out stand-up comedy show at Rupp Arena in 1977. Those remaining regions are "composer" and "banjo player." Fittingly, the latter is illustrated by a banjo-shaped area that starts at the subject's temple and wraps around his ear.

"Sometimes when actors try to become musicians, there's a great resistance," Martin said recently during a telephone press conference. "I'll tell you why that is. It's not that they're trying to become musicians. They're trying to become rock stars, and that's always kind of ludicrous. It's like they're not paying the dues."

But dues-paying came early for Martin. Before he donned his first set of bunny ears or the first fake-arrow-through-the-head for his stand-up routines, there was a banjo in his hands. A Texas native, he grew up in a Southern California culture that gave rise to a potent folk music movement in the early '60s.

"I would have been 17. It would have been about 1962," said Martin, 65. "This is a time during a folk music craze that was led by the Kingston Trio, which used a banjo. That was quickly replaced because I heard Earl Scruggs play, which is a whole other level. Then I heard The Dillards play live and that was a whole different level.

"Then I started finding records, a lot of banjo compilation records. And I had a friend in high school, John McEuen, who became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He taught me a lot. That led me to writing a lot of songs because I didn't have people to play with. I didn't learn so much the canon of bluegrass. I really learned my own songs."

Banjo, in the early phase of his career, was never Martin's primary calling. By age 23, he'd won his first Emmy Award as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. By the mid-'70s, he was an in-demand stand-up comedian who became a regular guest of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After Martin began hosting Saturday Night Live on a recurring basis in 1976, he became one of the country's most popular and prominent comic performers. But the banjo never left his side.

"I was always aiming to be in show business," Martin said. "And I really liked the idea of playing onstage. I liked the sort of ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo. I really liked that. But my heart was in comedy, and the fortunes led me to comedy.

"I used the banjo onstage during my comedy show in a kind of comedic way but also in a serious way. I always played a serious banjo song at least once during even my highest moment of stand-up."

The last of four comedy albums for Warner Bros., 1981's The Steve Martin Brothers, included a full side of banjo music, but Martin didn't devote his extensive career time to banjo, recording or touring as a professional musician, until The Crow was released in 2009.

By then, Martin had become an established film star, playwright and author. The Crow was anything but a comedic project. Longtime pal McEuen produced the album. Another friend, banjo innovator and educator Tony Trischka, led an all-star cast of players that included Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs and Tim O'Brien. The album won Martin his fourth Grammy Award (the first two were for comedy albums in the '70s; the third came in 2002 for his participation in a new recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown with Earl Scruggs).

Rare Bird Alert followed this spring. It sported a shorter yet high-profile guest list (Paul McCartney, The Dixie Chicks), but the project was designed more as a band album, with Trischka producing and North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers providing Martin's primary musical support. The Rangers also are his touring band.

"In terms of why I thought The Crow came at the right time, ... it was just all accidents. I had recorded a song (The Crow's title tune) for Tony's double banjo album (2007's Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular). And then I thought, 'Maybe I'll host an album where I play four of my five songs and have other people play theirs so I can sort of present the banjo to the world.'

"Then I said, 'Well, I actually have enough of my own (songs).' Then I had a weekend open. I didn't have a (record) deal. I just paid for the album myself and got John McEuen to produce it."

Film, theater and book projects continue to occupy his work life, but those regions in The Symbolical Head of Steve Martin devoted to "banjo player" and "composer" are also likely to remain active in the years ahead.

"I like having the outlet to play music because it uses a different part of my brain. I like the camaraderie of it. I like improving my musicianship. And I enjoy doing comedy portions onstage in small doses, although I wouldn't want to be doing stand-up again definitely.

"I also like that I have five other guys onstage to play music with who are great and who have the same sensibility I do, at least when we're playing together. They also are kind of, in a weird way, reluctant comedians rather than showboaters. I think that attitude works really well for us together."