Steve Martin: A Rare Bird Takes Flight Into Deep Blue Grass

Interview with a Comedic Legend on his Love of the Banjo and Upcoming Midland Appearance with The Steep Canyon Rangers

    icon Apr 28, 2011
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Steve Martin may have cut his teeth and made his mark as the ‘Wild & Crazy Guy’ of standup comedy in the mid to late 1970s; but today he is certainly one of the most diversified performers and arguably one of our most gifted creative talents, achieving success as an actor, comedian, author, playwright, producer, and musician, while forging pivotal roles in some of the most popular movies of recent history.

Having secured an interview with this legendary creative force for this edition’s cover feature, it is truly a testament to Martin’s star-power that two days prior to press The Review received word that his performance at The Midland Center for the Arts had already sold out.

For the past year, Martin has toured extensively with the Steep Canyon Rangers and his latest release features 13 new Martin-penned tracks, including a hilarious 'Hymn for Atheists'  along with a live version of his classic King Tut. Additionally, Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks make special guest vocal appearances on the release.
In addition to his Blue Grass Crusade, Martin managed to publish his second children’s book last Fall; and his latest novel, An Object of Beauty, was released in November of 2010. Receiving incredible reviews and with a heroine that has been compared to Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Martin’s latest novel incorporates his knowledge of the 1990s New York arts scene, as he tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a captivating and ambitious young woman who takes the NYC art world by storm.
And as if that isn’t a schedule to tire the pulse of most men, earlier this year Martin completed production on The Big Year, co-starring Owen Wilson and Jack Black. This comedy is set to be released by 20th Century Fox in October of this year and sees Martin as a member of a group of avid bird watchers competing to spot the rarest birds in North America at an annual esteemed event.
Throughout his career, Martin has challenged and shaped his comedic values around the convolutions of philosophy and logic, which often gets inverted. Born in Waco, Texas (an irony in itself, given his revolutionary gifts) Martin was raised in Southern California and became a TV writer in the late 1960s, winning an Emmy Award for his work on the hit series The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Launched by frequent appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Martin went on to host several innovative Saturday Night Live series and to star and co-write four highly rated TV specials and two Grammy Award winning comedy albums. His 1979 feature film debut as co-writer and star of The Jerk took everything in his career to a new level. The Jerk also featured Martin performing not on a banjo but a ukulele for the charming little duet, You Belong to Me, with his co-star Bernadette Peters.
As one whom has followed Martin’s comedy, his writing in The New Yorker, along with his films and autobiography, there were a boatload of questions that I came into our interview with; however, having received a fiat that all questioning must be limited to his banjo playing and tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers, it was obvious that we wouldn’t be talking about Martin’s extensive and prolific art collection.
Affable, down-to-earth, and cordial, although our topics were focused on matters of music and Blue grass; the conversations that unfolded took an occasional turn when least expected, offering some added insight into thoughts of a uniquely American artist that seems to be flourishing even as the nation faces newfound pressures.
In the Beginning
Although Martin has stated he is finished with standup comedy, there is a line in his autobiography where he talks about going on stage early in his career and saying to the audience, ‘You’re about to see the greatest performance in your lifetime. But that will be tomorrow night!’
To me this is the perfect fulcrum to begin.
How does Martin feel about performing live in front of audiences nowadays compared to when he was doing solo stints at The Troubadour? Obviously he prefers working with a band now, but I am curious what he feels has been easier to master, comedy or the banjo?
“Oh, gee, master,” I don’t know if I would use that term, but there’s a certain point where you have quite a few years of experience and you’ve been in every circumstance performance-wise that you can think of, but then you don’t find yourself in every circumstance anymore. You find yourself in really good circumstances.”
“Like tonight we’re doing sort of a charity thing at the Met Museum in New York,” continues Martin. “And we’re playing at the Temple of Dendera. It’s an Egyptian Temple. It’s, you know, 2000 years old. And there’s a lot of echo in the room and we’re sort of standing on a little makeshift stage. And every one of us who’s playing on stage go, ‘Yeah, we’ve been here.’ I was here in this situation 35 years ago. Don’t worry, I know what to do.”
“And so there is a kind of déjà vu involved – you do keep coming back to places where you never thought you’d find yourself anymore – circumstances.”
But with the Steep Canyon Rangers, how did Steve come across these guys and what made him want to pursue projects with them, of all the bluegrass outfits out on the scene populating the planet?
“Well, we met at a party in North Carolina. Then I played a couple of songs with them on stage once in Manhattan and once at this charity event they put on in North Carolina. And I just remembered that when it came time to promote my first solo banjo debut, The Crow, my agent said, ‘Steve, you need a band.’ And I said, ‘Well I only know one and that was the Steep Canyon Rangers. I got very lucky and it all worked out. You know, both stage-wise and also personably it all worked out well with these guys.”
With the subject matter of his film coming out later this year how does the title of his new album, Rare Bird Alert, tie into that – is this cross marketing at work or simple coincidence?
“No,” he responds, “it ties in. But it doesn’t tie into the film in a kind of commercial way. It’s just that we were involved in bird watching and the lingo of bird watching and that just seemed like a good title.”
“There is a thing called a rare bird alert that people dial up on their apps and get. It just seemed like a really good title. Actually, my wife suggested it as a title for a song. And then it eventually was a title of one of the songs and soon became the title for the album.”
Years ago when Martin first started out his career, he would perform at the Troubadour Club in L.A. and was recently featured in an American Masters documentary about that historic venue. What was it like being a part of that period of American music?
“Well, you know, of course at the time we don’t know it’s historic. Its just people hanging out there,” reflects Martin. “But it was a very exciting time. You know, I was listening to Linda Ronstadt and her back-up band, which were the precursors to The Eagles. And I was hearing comedians. Actually, I was one of the few comedians there, if not the only one. Cheech & Chong came in, but that was way later. Everybody had sort of moved on by then.”
“But it was a real hangout for musicians. I remember one night Glenn Frey came up and pitched me for suggestions and ideas for names for his group. The next week he came back and said, “It’s the Eagles’. So you know, it was a real undiscovered bar scene with a lot of talent floating around.”
So when and how did Steve first pick up a banjo and who were his musical influences at the time?
“Well, I would’ve been 17. It would have been around 1962 and I lived in Orange County, California. This was a time during a folk music craze that was led by The Kingston Trio who used a banjo. And that was quickly replaced because I heard Earl Scruggs play, which is a whole other level. And then I heard the Dillards play live and that was a whole different level, because when you hear somebody play live, you can’t believe what the five-string banjo is doing.”
“And then I just got into it. I started finding records. There were a lot of banjo compilation records with different players, and then I had a friend in high school – John McEuen – who became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He taught me a lot. And I just got very lucky. I practiced really hard, especially early on. And it was a struggle because I was doing other things, too, and I didn’t have people to play with. But that led to me 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.”
So did Steve intend to be a musician then at that time rather than an actor or comedian?
“I was always aiming to be in show business. And I really liked the idea of playing on stage. I liked the sort of ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo. But my heart was in comedy. And the fortunes led me to comedy. And I used the banjo on stage during my comedy show in a kind of a 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. I always played at least one serious banjo song.”
Hatching the Eggs for Rare Bird Alert
One of Steve’s new songs on his latest release is entitled Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. What’s the story behind that track and how has it been received with audiences?
“Well, I used to listen to The Steep Canyon Rangers sing their gospel song during the show and I started thinking about it. Religious people have this great art and great music and atheists really don’t have anything. So I thought it would be really funny to write a hymn for atheists.”
“And I had the idea for a long time and sat down and wrote all these lyrics, but I knew it needed a kind of gospel music only I didn’t really know how to write gospel music, so I presented the idea to the Rangers and they said yeah, we can think about it.”
“One day Woody & Graham showed up with the tune and I just loved it. I knew I was a little afraid because I had all these high notes in it and I’m worried about singing this, but I practiced it and got to a point where I could do it, but we didn’t know how it was going to be received.”
“We decided to try it one night in a show and in the middle of it the audience started laughing and we just looked at each other and knew we had a new four minutes for our show. We were excited it worked so well.”
How was the decision made to cover King Tut with the Rangers and was there any trepidation of reluctance about playing that song with this new group of professional bluegrass players?
“Let’s put it this way, there was a little trepidation, but it was also my idea,” reflects Martin. “Because I thought it was a funny idea to do a bluegrass King Tut. And I also know that we do music. I do comedy in the show but when the music comes along the audience is able to transform itself and take it seriously. Some of the songs are funny; a lot of the songs are serious. And there’s really been no problem with the audience adjusting itself to whatever the next beat is. And King Tut is always an encore. It’s never a big serious number in the middle of the show.”
“I did question putting it on the record, but the reason I finally did was to let people 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, you know, with no comedy.”
With two fine albums to his credit now, does Martin see the banjo and bluegrass music as having an ongoing place in his career from here on out?
“I do think it does have a place for me because; one, I love it; and the songs keep coming. And I even started to think why does an album need 13 or 14 songs? Nobody has time to listen to them anyway? So I thought maybe an album should be four songs. And I do kind of 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 the comedy portions on stage in small doses. I wouldn’t want to be doing standup again, definitely.”
“I also like that I have five other guys on stage not only to play music with who are great, but who have the same sensibility I do – at least when we’re playing together – musically. In a weird way they are also reluctant comedians rather than show boaters. I think the attitude works really well for us together.”
Are there any similarities or differences between doing music and all the other art forms Martin engages like comedy and magic and creative writing?
“Well, I think about this and sometimes I get asked this question and never had a good answer. The only similarities I’ve found are metaphorical. In other words, they’re not real similarities. They’re just fanciful.”
“Like I can say to you a musical line is like a sentence – it has a beginning, middle, and end. And a phrase in a song is like a paragraph – and of course there’s lyrics. You know, lyrics are similar to book writing or sentence writing. A lyric has to flow like a sentence. But even that is different because you can kind of cheat in a nice way with a lyric. You can get away with things you couldn’t get away with in a sentence on a page.”
“So it’s really honesty from another part of the brain. When I started doing this again I felt I was using another part of my brain. I felt I was buying – I was staving off Alzheimer’s. That’s what I actually felt – that was coming from somewhere else.”
“You know, I said this on David Letterman. He says how do you have time to do all this? I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a job – you know. I don’t go to work. I wake up and there’s hours in the day. And also I enjoy doing it. I think I’ve written more songs while watching television. You know, just fiddling around on the banjo and you make a mistake because you’re not watching where you’re going and you go what was that? Then you try to repeat it and more comes out of bad playing, actually, than good playing.”
Recently Martin was asked to perform with James Taylor at a Carnegie Hall Tribute and also brought in Paul McCartney to help with his latest Bluegrass release. What was that experience like?
“It was a quite a thrill. You know, I have a lot going on and sometimes don’t remember things so clearly, but I remember every detail working with Paul McCartney that day. And I remember every detail of working with James Taylor two nights ago. He was such a gentle guy.”
“Paul McCartney was completely delightful to everyone in the room regardless of position. Very funny. They were just really nice. And I’ve found that actually with most celebrities at the highest level there’s a reason they get there and stay there. Now I can’t say that as a generality, but most people I’ve met, by the way this goes for musicians in the bluegrass world, too, they are wickedly smart and really funny. Most are college educated. And they’ve made choices along the way that this is what they wanted to do. It’s really surprising the background of a lot of people in show business.”
Is there anything Steve hasn’t achieved yet that is looming high on his bucket list?
“Well, I don’t know if I have the stamina to do eight shows a week anymore. I really don’t. That to me is very hard. If I had to do two shows in one day it’s like when I started out. But I have thought about some kind of musical involving my music. I thought that would be kind of interesting. I have thought of it in that way as a creator of something, not so much a performer. And so that’s in my head. Whether I get it done or not, I don’t know”
Does Steve feel he is introducing people to this style of music on some level and serving as a gateway to bluegrass music?
“A joke I use in the show is to say the bluegrass magazines have been calling me the ambassador of the five string banjo. It was between me and no one. And so I guess it’s kind of true. I mean, after they hear us play the next time they hear a bluegrass song or a five string banjo song will realize it is no longer foreign to them.”
What does Steve think in terms of the banjo versus bagpipes? Are there any two instruments that get made fun of more frequently; and does he know any good banjo jokes?
“Well, no I don’t because I try to forget them because I love the bagpipes and I love the banjo. A comedian always presented banjoes in the ‘20s and ‘30s. And they were usually dressed in coveralls and wore straw hats. And that’s why we dress up. And a lot of the bluegrass acts now are dressing up, to change that perception.”
“But banjo jokes and bagpipe jokes are like Polish jokes. Now they’re not really politically correct, so I’m trying to change that image and try to get it off on another instrument – maybe harps.”
Finally, is there any misconceptions people harbor about Steve Martin?
“I’m trying to think. There were a few years back but I don’t see those things anymore. One was that I was in Mensa. I’ve never been in Mensa. One was that I was a Mormon. I’ve never been a Mormon. But those stopped a long time ago.”
“There’s a few incorrect quotes I see on the Internet, but it’s not even worth correcting.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have something good and juicy. The music will have to suffice.”
And so it does.

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