Martin wild about banjo & blue­grass

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Steve Martin wants to be taken se­ri­ously as a mu­si­cian.

Well, not too se­ri­ously. Martin — best known for his stand-up com­edy in the ’70s and since then his comic films, plays and books — couldn’t re­sist go­ing for laughs on a hand­ful of tracks on his new blue­grass al­bum recorded with his back­ing band, North Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers, with whom he per­forms Satur­day at the Or­pheum.

For in­stance, he takes a stab at writ­ing the first hymn for non-be­liev­ers on “Athe­ists Don’t Have No Songs.” And he even reprises his iconic nov­elty hit “King Tut,” orig­i­nally recorded for Martin’s 1978 Grammy-win­ning com­edy al­bum

with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band per­form­ing as the “Toot Un­com­mons.”

“We do it oc­ca­sion­ally,” Martin says of the song that pops up (if at all) on the cur­rent tour only as an encore. “I did ques­tion putting it on the record. But the rea­son I fi­nally put it on the record was I also want peo­ple to know that our live show is fun. That when they come to the live show it’s not go­ing to be me stand­ing on stage with my back to the au­di­ence play­ing 30 songs in a row with no com­edy.”

But that said, Martin’s love for the banjo and blue­grass is no joke. He first be­came en­thralled by the mu­sic as a teenager grow­ing up in Orange County, Calif., dur­ing the folk mu­sic re­vival of the early ’60s. His taste quickly ma­tured from the Kingston Trio to Earl Scruggs to the Dil­lards.

“I just loved the sound of it,” Martin says of the banjo. “When I heard it, I lit­er­ally could part with my ears the other in­stru­ments and just lis­ten to the banjo. … I just loved it, loved the sound of it, both its melan­choly as­pect and its dy­namic speed.”

Martin’s high school friend John McEuen, later a mem­ber of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, taught him some things on the in­stru­ment, and he be­gan writ­ing his own songs. But there were not a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to play Ap­palachian string mu­sic in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Be­sides, Martin, whose in­ter­est in com­edy dates back to grade school, had an­other muse to fol­low.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Martin was writ­ing jokes for var­i­ous tele­vi­sion shows and hon­ing his stand-up act in clubs like the Trou­ba­dour. His com­edy was smart, ir­rev­er­ent, and non sequitur, but one sta­ple of his rou­tine stuck out as quaintly anachro­nis­tic, al­most a throw back to an ear­lier form of show busi­ness.

“The for­tunes led me to com­edy,” Martin says. “And I used the banjo on stage dur­ing my com­edy show in a kind of comedic way and also in a se­ri­ous way. I al­ways played a se­ri­ous banjo song at least once dur­ing even my high­est mo­ment of stand-up ....”

Fol­low­ing the re­lease of the half-com­edy/half-blue­grass record

Martin quit do­ing stand-up to fo­cus on his film ca­reer. He has ap­peared in 42 the­atri­cal re­leases, writ­ing and star­ring in such smashes as “The Jerk,” “Rox­anne,” and “All Of Me.” More re­cently he has be­come known as a crit­i­cally ac­claimed play­wright (“Pi­casso at the Lapin Ag­ile”) and au­thor (the novel “Shop­girl” and the mem­oir “Born Stand­ing Up” among other ti­tles). In 2005, he was awarded the pres­ti­gious Mark Twain Prize for Amer­i­can Hu­mor.

Martin the mu­si­cian faded from peo­ple’s mem­o­ries. In 2001, he reap­peared, play­ing with Scruggs on a ver­sion of his clas­sic “Foggy Moun­tain Break­down” that won a Grammy. Martin was slowly grow­ing in con­fi­dence as a player.

Fi­nally, on his own dime, he de­cided to do his own record­ing pro­ject, pulling in friends and heroes like Scruggs, Vince Gill and Dolly Par­ton to help out on a col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal tunes. Pro­duced by McEuen, Martin’s first all-blue­grass re­lease, 2009’s

Sandee Bartkowski

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