Martin pickin’ and grinnin’ at Ann Arbor FestivalWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Martin and the banjo go way back. How far back? It’s surprising the Smothers Brothers didn’t adopt him and form a trio.
Martin, who won an Emmy for comedy writing for the siblings’ variety show in 1969, featured the five-string instrument in his stand-up act. His 1977 debut album, “Let’s Get Small,” opens with “Ramblin’ Man/Theme From Ramblin’ Man” with the comic clad in the white suit playing and encouraging the audience to sing along.
“I used the banjo onstage during my comedy show in a kind of comedic way and also in a serious way,” he said. “I always played a serious banjo song at least once during even my highest moment of stand-up.”
The wild and crazy Renaissance guy can’t contain his creativity — comedy, movies, plays, essays, books, bluegrass. Whether he’s writing about art, tossing out a perfectly timed one-liner, bringing down the movie house, or ripping through a clawhammer banjo solo, Martin’s genius is evident.
“When I started [writing music] again, I felt I was using another part of my brain. I was staving off Alzheimer’s,” the 65-year-old quipped.
His 2009 disc, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” won a Grammy for best bluegrass album and included Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.
For the follow-up, Martin found five amigos — The Steep Canyon Rangers — guitarist and lead singer Woody Platt, bassist Charles Humphrey, mandolin player Mike Guggino, fiddler Nicky Sanders and banjoist Graham Sharp. Released in March, “Rare Bird Alert” contains 10 new songs penned by Martin and two he wrote with the band. Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks sing on the disc, which includes a tender ballad, a barnburner dance song, and a couple humorous numbers.
Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers will play a sold-out show June 25 at the University of Michigan’s Power Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. See the complete festival lineup at annarborsummerfestival.org
The popular performer fielded questions from the media, including Toledo Free Press, in a teleconference and talked about the new CD.
How did you pick the banjo?
Martin: 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, you know, dynamic speed. I loved it.
As a comedian, actor and writer, was it easier to be taken seriously as a musician?
Martin: Sometimes when actors try to become musicians, there’s a great resistance. … There’s something about the banjo, or other instruments, it looks and sounds very difficult. And it is. All instruments are difficult. And so suddenly they’re not laughing, you know, when suddenly you play a three-finger banjo thing at lightning speed. It’s just as simple as that. I always think: What would I think if I saw David Letterman pick up the violin and play Mozart? I would go, wow, you know, and it was decent.
Would you pay to see him?
Martin: I don’t know about that. It depends. … I have to have confidence in my own music or honestly I wouldn’t put it out there. I really wouldn’t.
There’s a live version of “King Tut” on the new disc.
Martin: I thought it was a funny idea to do a bluegrass “King Tut.” … 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 onstage with my back to the audience playing 30 songs in a row, you know, with no comedy.
What’s the story behind “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” and how has it been received?
Martin: Religious people have this great art and great music, and atheists really don’t have anything. So I thought it’d be really funny to write a hymn for atheists. … And we decided to try it one night in a show. And in the middle of it, the audience started laughing and we just kind of looked at each other, and we knew we had a new four minutes for our show.
Did Paul McCartney really say you sounded terrible as a singer?
Martin: It wasn’t quite like that. … He thought I was going to sing [on “Best Love”] and I said, OK, but I’m a terrible singer. And when I got there, he said, when you said you were a terrible singer, I thought you were being humble but you weren’t. No, it was done with a sense of humor.
What was it like working with the Dixie Chicks?
Martin: I jumped at the chance because I know they have great harmony. And the song [“You”] is made for harmonies. … They did a beautiful job. And they were really delightful to work with. And there was no — you know, one of the rumors on their breakup — well, they all seem to be very, very close friends in the studio.
How has the traditional bluegrass community responded to you, especially as you’re infusing humor into the music?
Martin: I never know what they say behind my back. But to my face it’s been very, very good. … Almost all the bluegrass shows do comedy. So that’s sort of a tradition.
“The Big Year” movie due this fall is about bird watchers. Is “Rare Bird Alert” a tie-in?
Martin: It doesn’t tie into the film in a kind of commercial way. We were involved in bird watching and the lingo of bird watching and that just seemed like a good title.
What do you like about playing with a band?
Martin: I like the camaraderie of it. I like improving my musicianship. I enjoy doing the comedy portions onstage in small doses.