Martin wild about banjo & bluegrass
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