Steve Martin understands that the path has been made difficult for movie stars who would moonlight as musicians.
“I think I know the kind of thing you’re talking about,” he says.
“What they really want to be is a rock star rather than a rock musician.”
He’s too gracious to name names (Jim Belushi), but plenty a mediocre band has found itself thrust before audiences it hasn’t earned thanks to a celebrity frontman (Jared Leto, Billy Bob Thornton ...). “There probably is a prejudice against celebrities doing music if they didn’t come up that way,” Martin says. “But I have not found it, and, you know, luckily for me, in this case.”
“This case” is his current concert tour, his first as primarily a musician.
In “An Evening of Bluegrass & Banjo,” Martin, 64, fronts a respected young North Carolina bluegrass band, Steep Canyon Rangers, in a show that is a little of Steve Martin talking and a lot of Steve Martin picking.
For the talking part, “if I gave you a percentage, 15 percent,” he says during perhaps the only publicity conference call ever held for a banjo tour. “I don’t really do any lengthy bits, but I really just talk between the songs and introduce the band. And whatever comedy that brings. ...” He’s supporting an album of original tunes, January’s “The Crow,” Martin’s first musical release since the 1978 hit novelty single “King Tut.”
The CD has been widely praised, as has Martin’s playing, which dates back to his earliest days onstage and was used, as magic was, to give his comedy act a little something extra.
“It was important to the show because the comedy act looks so ad-libbed,” he says. “I felt I needed something to show that I could actually do (something) that was hard.”
Fans of Martin’s 1970s comedy albums will recall the banjo being integral. He would riff, for instance, on the instrument being almost impervious to dark emotions, juxtaposing banjo licks with the lyric, “Oh, death and grief and sorrow and murder.”
“I always thought his banjo playing was pretty great,” says Chris Walz, program manager for bluegrass, old time and Americana at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. “This is somebody who’s really been deep into the music as an art form and as a player, but who was also able to take the instrument and use it in comedy, but not in an old-time, kind of slapstick or minstrel way.”
Walz was impressed by the CD, too, which Martin hails in his liner notes as “the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe.”
“You can put ‘The Crow’ album right up there with the kind of work that Bela Fleck has been doing, Alison Brown, Pete Wernick,” Walz says.
“It’s a really neat piece of work,” he adds, citing Martin’s experimental nature, his playing in nonstandard tunings and his ability to make the banjo’s melodic voice clear. “Many banjo tunes written in the bluegrass style can sound more like a collection of licks rather than actual melodic ideas,” Walz says.
The people playing with Martin for the tour’s 20-odd dates — mostly in mid-size theaters — have been enjoying it too.
“The best thing about it is that his music’s really good,” says Woody Platt, the 32-year-old frontman for Steep Canyon Rangers.
“He’s a great, creative banjo player and probably one of the best entertainers you could ever share the stage with.”
After the first week of the tour, Platt says, Martin’s stage patter included mock complaints about having been on the road soooo long. They landed the gig touring with the actor because they knew Martin’s wife, Anne Stringfield, through family connections, and Martin ended up playing with them during a trip to North Carolina.
“We were the local pickers and friends of the family already,” Platt says. “It unfolded real natural like that.”
For Martin’s part, the musical spotlight is just the latest surprise in a neverstatic career. He quit standup comedy when he was at superstar level. He still makes Hollywood comedies but not as many as he might, given the effort he has put into things like writing absurdist plays (“Picasso at the Lapin Agile”) and first-rate comic pieces for The New Yorker.
He’s got a novel in the works that he’ll polish up after the tour, he says.
But the banjo had always been a touchstone to him, not just in his comedy act but also as a means of relaxation before shows.
The passion to play it more seriously, he says, reignited slowly, aided by a luxury not every musician gets.
“About 10 years ago I did something: I put a banjo in every room,” Martin says.
“So wherever I was, it was there. I didn’t have to be in the mood to play the banjo and say, ‘Oh, who wants to go back to the bedroom to pick it up?’ “It really helped me. You know, I started playing a lot more that way.”
A few years after that, he says, the great banjo player Earl Scruggs invited him to play on one of his albums: “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get up to speed,’ you know? And I started practicing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’” Martin says.
“And then The New Yorker asked me to host a banjo evening. And I said I would love to do that because they had Earl Scruggs, and they had all these favorite players of mine to invite down. ... And we just had a great time.
“And the world just started opening up, and I connected to more and more people. And then I started thinking about recording the songs because I was getting back up to speed again.”
He had written some songs years ago, and in the last five years wrote another 10.
From making the record, it was another step to decide to play live and to go out on tour: “The first shows I did, you know, I’m just sitting there, just staring at the (instrument’s) neck,” he says. “But now I’m much more relaxed and I feel more confident.”
Audiences, he says, have been accepting because they know they’re coming to see a music show and any humor is a bonus.
And while Martin touring with a bluegrass band may be the most mainstream, potentially audience-expanding moment for bluegrass since the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for Martin it’s not a celebrity trip.
“The difference here,” he says, “is I really just want to play my songs.”
HE MAY NOT LOOK LIKE A RENAISSANCE MAN, BUT…
Selections from the oeuvre of Steve Martin, a true Renaissance man:
—“Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” late 1960s, writer. This show broke ground while it lasted.
—“Let’s Get Small,” 1977 comedy album. A revelation at the time, still funny today.
—“King Tut,” 1978, novelty single. In its first performance, a highlight of highlight-rich early “Saturday Night Live” days.
—“Roxanne,” 1987, film adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac story, co-written by and starring Martin.
—“L.A. Story,” 1991, romantic comedy written by, starring Martin.
—“Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” 1993, play.
—“Pure Drivel,” 1998, collection of humor pieces, mostly from The New Yorker.
—“Shopgirl,” 2000, novella, also a short film.
—“Kindly Lent Their Owner,” 2001, essays on his art collection, accompanying a show.
—“Dave and Steve’s Gay Vacation,” 2005, very short film. Martin and David Letterman relive their special time together.
—“Born Standing Up,” 2007, memoir. Widely praised account of his stand-up days, especially.
—“The Crow,” musical recording, 2009. Martin writes and plays compositions for the five-string banjo.