Music News

Steve Martin's Bluegrass Album Is No Joke

We don't like change. We don't like evolution, slow growth, or new surprises. Once we've figured something out, it's easier if it just stays as it was when we got to know it, thank you very much. And we're skeptical when those whom we've gotten to know as actors start presenting themselves as musicians; it's easy, easy, easy to pull out a joke (or at least raise an eyebrow) about, say, Dogstar, The Bacon Brothers, or 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.

When word came out in 2009 that comedian Steve Martin — he of the wild and crazy guys, King Tut, and Shopgirl — would release an album of banjo tunes, a giant question mark popped up above the collective head of the bluegrass community. But The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo was a real winner, and proof that the most effective way for an actor to validate her or his musical efforts is also the simplest way — put out quality music. Billy Bob Thornton could take a note or two.

The Crow won a Grammy, but Martin's banjo skills didn't come out of the blue. His early stand-up occasionally featured banjo-accompanied songs and other musical ditties, no doubt influenced by his pre-SNL work writing for wide-ranging variety shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Though in this current touring incarnation Martin is clearly the public face, his backing band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, is as essential to the experience as he is as bandleader. The Asheville, North Carolina, band, with which Martin collaborated to write and record the album Rare Bird Alert, is a crackerjack bluegrass act in its own right, with Woody Platt on guitar, Charles Humphrey on bass, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin, and Graham Sharp on banjo, and each of them contributing backing and occasional lead vocals.

"Serendipity has made a better match than any bluegrass computer dating service," Martin said when Rare Bird Alert was released this spring. The album takes Martin's comedic predilections in a musical direction, and the wry humor inherent in so much bluegrass music allows for a seamless integration between Martin's sensibilities and those of the genre. Precise picking and forceful clawhammer strokes sit neatly alongside vocal harmonies and giggle-inducing wordplay. There are famous guests, too: Paul McCartney lends vocals to "Best Love," while the Dixie Chicks perform the emotional "You."

While his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up, revealed the melancholy heart behind the smiling face — not that Martin's the only sad clown around — Martin's music is decidedly ebullient. His current performances reflect as much. Martin, who turned 66 last week, comes across like a man excited to be back on stage and energized by the opportunity to banter with his band and the audience in a setting a little less pressure-filled than that of a comedy club.

And, yes, Martin's chart-topping tune, "King Tut," gets the bluegrass treatment on the new album. A sing-along's a safe bet for this week's show. At least in this case, Martin has bridged his onscreen and onstage personas, validating his varied exploits without needing to make excuses for them.

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