When movie star and best-selling author Steve Martin got famous doing standup comedy in the 1970s, banjo was part of his act. Martin used the banjo, an instrument usually associated with its country-music cousin, bluegrass, mostly as a prop.
In the past few years, however, the banjo moved from supporting player to star attraction in Martin’s life and career.
His 2009 album, The Crow: New Songs For The Five-String Banjo, won a Grammy for best bluegrass album. He followed his debut with this year’s Rare Bird Alert. The album co-stars North Carolina bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers and guest-stars Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks.
Just as Martin has been a successful comedian, actor and writer, he found success as a bluegrass musician, singer and songwriter. At this point in his long career, sold-out concerts, standing ovations and a Grammy award are a nice surprise.
“The first thing that means a lot is that the audience responds,” Martin said during a recent teleconference. “The audience response has been so good and, believe me, I’ve been around a long time and I can tell when it’s sincere and when it’s perfunctory. This is a sincere, genuine response.”
Having done grueling tours in his standup days, the 66-year-old Martin enjoys, for multiple reasons, touring now more than ever.
“We’re playing these beautiful theaters that can seat everywhere from 1,500 people to 5,000 people,” he said. “They’re usually either brand new theaters or renovated from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Communities are very proud of them. They’re gorgeous.”
In addition to superior venues and not having to play, as Martin said, rock ‘n’ roll barns, he’s enjoying better planes, hotels and automobiles, too.
Another of the pleasures that Martin gets from touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers is the occasional legitimate concert review written by a professional critic.
“There used to be legitimate reviewers for a newspaper or something,” he recalled. “But now it’s more like blogs. I usually get a review that literally just lists all the jokes. But every once in a while we do get a very sophisticated review. That’s really, really nice.”
Of course, the source of Martin’s late-blooming career as a bluegrass star is his love for the banjo, the genre’s principal instrument. He loved the instrument at first listen.
“There was a folk-music craze in the ‘60s,” he said. “I could just hear the banjo in the background. And then I heard people like Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs and I just went crazy for it.”
For the 17-year-old Martin, learning how to play the banjo at first seemed an impossible task. Despite the intimidation, he borrowed a banjo from his high-school girlfriend’s dad, bought some instruction books and learned to play.
Even when Martin’s comedy, writing and acting careers hit full stride, he kept playing the banjo.
“But there’s no comparison to playing it casually and playing it up on stage every night,” he explained.
Some years ago, Martin’s rediscovery of the banjo recordings he’d loved during his youth inspired him to pursue the instrument more seriously. He also met contemporary banjo players, including Tony Trischka, the banjo star who recorded Martin’s original song, “The Crow.”
“Tony put it on his record and it became this little hit in the bluegrass world,” Martin recalled. “And then I thought, ?Well, I have some other songs and I’m not getting any younger. Maybe I should record them.’ And that’s what I did. And it became a No. 1 bluegrass record and won a Grammy.”
In addition to working with the award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers for Rare Bird Alert, Martin recruited Paul McCartney to sing one of the album’s songs, “Best Love.” Working with the former Beatle and enduring solo star was pure delight, Martin said.
“People who are famous are impressed to be around him,” Martin said. “He’s always the elephant-in-the-room kind of guy. He knows that and he’s lived that life for so long. And yet he couldn’t have been more humble. He said hello to the cook and the sound guy, everybody.
“We did several takes on the song,” Martin added. “He was just getting to learn it that day. Finally, we said, ?I think we got it.’ And he said, ?Oh, no. Let me go through it from the beginning.’ He went over and over it. That’s why he’s so great. He wasn’t there to do a quick job and get out. He was there to do the best job he possibly could.”