Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, October 09, 2004
The Banjo newsletter article
A few posts below there is a pic of the Banjo Newsletter cover with Steve on it. This is the article that goes with it. A Barefoot Maiden dropped it by. Thank you, Barefoot.
Volume XXX No. 4
Interview by Ira Gitlin
According to a widely circulated but unsubstantiated legend, when Uncle Dave Macon first heard Earl Scruggs play, he grumbled, “He ain’t one damn bit funny!” Implicit in Uncle Dave’s criticism was the notion-- dating back over a century to the earliest days of the minstrel show—that comedy was an essential part of the banjoist’s stock in trade. And although generations of banjoists have striven to make their mark as serious musicians, the tradition that links the banjo with comedy remains very much alive. No artist in recent memory has represented the tradition more strikingly than comedian, actor, and writer Steve Martin.
Martin was already a seasoned performer when, starting in 1975, his frequent appearances on television’s “Saturday Night Live” made him a pop culture icon. He put his stamp on some of SNL’s most memorable early bits, like Czechoslovakian brothers sketches along with Dan Ayckroyed) and the “King Tut” musical production number, as well as performing his regular comedy routines. Martin’s dapper persona contrasted sharply both with the scruffiness of other comedians and with the sly absurdity of his material. And he played the banjo.
Most viewers no doubt regarded it as just another comic prop, a part of Steve Martin’s image along with the white suit, the phony arrow through the head, and the catch phrases (“Excuuuse Me”; “We’re just two wild and crazy guys!’). But musicians took note: this guy could really play.
Born in Waco, Texas, in 1945, Martin moved with his family to Orange County in southern California when he was a child. He got an early start in show business, learning to juggle and do magic tricks and working at Disneyland. Then, as a 17-year-old in 1962, a Flatt and Scruggs record got him hooked on the banjo.
A short autobiographical sketch in the summer of 1999 issue of “The Oxford American,” simply titled “Banjo,” wryly chronicles this phase of Mr. Martin’s life: the initial attempt to wrest the yearned-for sounds from a borrowed 4-string; the hand written tablatures and slowed downed LPs; the obsessive repetition of “Cripple Creek”; the influence of other California players like Doug Dillard (“…watching Doug Dillard was like watching God…”), multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, and Martin’s high school buddy John McEuen; the youthful taste for speed and volume; the exhilaration of competing at the Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contest; the stumbling journey from enthusiastic cluelessness to musical savvy.
After high school Martin enrolled at Long Beach State University, then transferred in 1967 to UCLA, changing his major from philosophy to theater. During his college years he worked on his material and honed his standup act in Los Angeles clubs—an act that combined ironic comic monologues with juggling, magic tricks, and banjos playing. His theatrical connections led to a job as a writer for the top-rated but controversial CBS “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and other network TV writing jobs soon followed.
The 1970s saw Steve Martin rise to the top of his field through his tours as an opening act for various pop musicians (including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which featured his old friend Jon McEuen), as a frequent guest on ‘Saturday Night Live” and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and as a recording artist. His debut recording, 1977’s “Let’s Get Small,” won a Grammy the following year. Three more followed. The last of them “The Steve Martin Brothers,” was released in 1981 and nominated for a Grammy the following year. Only half of it was comedy, however; the entire second side consisted of banjo instrumentals (more than half original tunes) that Martin had recorded ten years earlier.
By this time he was moving away from standup comedy. After several short films and cameo appearances, Martin starred in his first full-length movie, “The Jerk,” in 1979. More than thirty films have followed, critical and popular acclaim. While comedy is seldom far from the surface, Martin’s films—some of which he has had a hand in writing—often combine romance and pathos with comedy, or raise serious philosophical questions. There is also a best-selling book on his résumé (1970’s Cruel Shoes) and television and stage scripts.
But the move away from standup meant that Steve Martin had lost the outlet for his banjo playing. He practiced less and less, only occasionally picking up the banjo in his spare time or learning a new tune. That changed, however, in 2001 when he was invited to participate in a recording session for “Earl Scruggs And Friends,” Scrugg’s first album in seventeen years. Martin was tapped to play along with the master on a new version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” that showcased bluegrass stalwarts Jerry Douglas and Glen Duncan, ‘70s rocker Leon Russell, “Late Night With Letterman” bandleader Paul Shaffer, country stars Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, electric guitar wizard Albert Lee, and Earl’s sons Gary and Randy Scruggs. The recording—which won a Grammy last year or Best Country instrumental Performance—and the attendant video and rounds of television appearances rekindled Martin’s enthusiasm for the banjo. As of August of 2002, when ht following telephone interview was conducted, the 5-string banjo had become once again a vital presence in the life of Steve Martin.
BNL: When John McEuen gave us some background material for this interview, he specifically mentioned your tune “Pitkin County Turnaround.” Do you have any tablature you could send us for that one?
SM: I don’t have any tablature. In fact, I can hardly remember how t play them, I can remember the basic moves, but there’s some passages I still can’t remember. I was probably 20when I wrote them. I think there’s about five songs that were recorded back then.
BNL: When was that?
SM: They were recorded, I believe, around 1970. It was the same recording session as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and my manger Bill McEuen, who produced the Circle album, found time for me on the United Artists’ tab. I went into the studio with John—I think we recorded some double banjo stuff—and Junior Huskey on bass, Vassar Clements on fiddle, and Maury Manseau on guitar. He used to be in a thing called the Sunshine Company—you don’t know them? They had a couple of hit songs They weren’t bluegrass, though.
BNL: Were these the songs the appeared on the B side of one of your album?
SM: Yeah. They were on the other side of “The Steve Martin Brothers.” But there’s some really embarrassing stuff on there.
BNL: That record came out in ’81, so these cuts were already ten years old at the time, right?
SM: Yeah. By that time I was out of comedy material. I needed to put something on the record. I think I had contract to come up with another record. I really didn’t have [enough material for] one; I’d sort of moved on from standup at that point.
BNL: What banjos do you play? McEuen mentioned a Granada that he thought was from ’26.
SM: a 1925 Granada.
BNL: With a ball—bearing tone ring?
SM: Yeah, but we’ve taken the ball bearings out. I have the ball bearings, be we took them out. I not sure what the differences in all these tone ring things are. They’re all archtops. I have an archtop Florentine from ’27 and another Florentine from the same year, ’27.
BNL: You like the fancier models?
SM: Well, you know, I actually fooled myself into thinking that the Florentine was the best ‘sounding’ banjo, when I realized later that it was the most ‘decorated’ banjo. But I still love, love, love the way it sounds. I love my banjos. And the Granada’s a little mellower, and then I have a Gibson RB-170 from the ‘50s. It’s a frailer, open back.
BNL: Did you play professionally or semiprofessionally at some point?
SM: Well, I’m not a professional. I’m an amateur player. But I used to play in my comedy act, and I got pretty good at certain songs, you know. But I wasn’t a real musician like some people are—still aren’t [sic]. I wrote some tunes because I didn’t know better—you know, I didn’t know you weren’t suppose to. And then I played on stage sometimes with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but it was always “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Fireball Mail” or something like that. But basically I’m a homebody, home picker.
BNL: But your act was mostly comedy—and magic, also?
SM: Yeah, I did a little comedy-magic, too. I did everything: I played the banjo, I juggled, I did magic, and told jokes.
BNL: What made you decide to bring the banjo into the act?
SM: I was trying to find enough things to do on stage that would give me enough time to fill up 20 minutes. And so the banjo was one of them, and juggling, and a few jokes, and my magic act, and I read poetry, and…
BNL: It sounds like a real vaudeville sensibility.
SM: It was very much like that. I played seriously on stage. If you listen to my early records, like maybe “Let’s Get Small”—I’m not sure—or “Wild and Crazy Guy”—one of those records—there’s that [thing] where I kind of play and talk and make jokes. I would play “Sally Goodin’.” I think it’s on “the Steve Martin Brothers” record, and I must say, I just listened to it; it was pretty good! I learned it from Earl Scruggs himself.
BNL: You mean, in person?
SM: Yeah, in person.
BNL: Wow. How did that come about?
SM: He was playing down in Tustin, California, and John McEuen and I went down there. I was probably 19 or 20 then. Earl was so nice. John knew him a little bit, so we went back stage, and he generously showed me a few licks on “Sally Goodin”—as you know its not easy to teach a beginner…
BNL: Not that tune!
SM: --and signed an autograph on a string wrapper. And there you go! Yeah, it was great.
BNL: So even when your were presenting the banjo in the context of a comedy act, you regarded that as a serious musical moment?
SM: Yeah, I was really playing a song. I’d play “Sally Goodin” or sometimes Bill Keith’s “Devil’s Dream” and “Sailor’s Hornpipe” medley. Yeah, there was always a moment where I would play a serious song. You know, there was a great record—they’ve reissued it but with so many different titles. Then it was called “ 5-string Banjo Greats.” There was a great collection of players. The song “Green Corn” played by Billy Faier—I remember buying the music to it—I mean, you could write him and get it. I learned “Green Corn” off the tablature and I played that on stage sometimes.
BNL: It sounds like that at that stage of your musical development you were eclectic, not a hardcore bluegrasser, even if bluegrass was your main focus.
SM: Yeah, I love bluegrass but when you’re alone on the stage—you know… These self-contained songs appealed to me that are essentially banjo solos. I’ve been listening lately to Tony Ellis. They’re kind of solo songs, they have that great modal song. I love Tom Adams too, who write for BNL.
BNL: You took the banjo seriously, but how did your audiences react?
SM: I think they tolerated it. It was always an interlude, but it was fine. It was a nice break from the comedy and it was kind of showoffy, you know, ‘cause I could play I could play pretty fast and pretty clean at that point.
BNL: Did they laugh inappropriately?
SM: No they didn’t. They always clapped. I’m being facetious when I say “they tolerated it," but it wasn’t the main thrust of what my act was.
BNL: I remember noticing in the old “Saturday Night Live” days that you could really play, but I’d guess that to most people in the audience the banjo was just a part of your comedy shtick.
SM: Since I won my Grammy, I actually started practicing again and playing. It’s amazing what has come back, and how much I love playing. Now I’ve been playing every day. In fact, I’ve downloaded “Nola” off Paul Hawthorne’s website.
BNL: Paul’s own version, or Bill’s Keith’s?
SM: It was Paul’s. I didn’t even know the Bill Keith version was there. “Nola” was always the Mecca, the holy grail to me of banjo playing, not only because I loved the song, but because my mother played it on the piano when I was a kid, so I’ve really been practicing that everyday for eight months. I’ve never made it once all the way through with out a mistake or some kind of clunker, but I just took it on as a challenge.
BNL: I definitely wanted to ask you about the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” recording. How did you get hooked up with that project?
SM: In a very uninteresting way there. I think Louise [Scruggs] probably called my agent, or called John [McEuen]—I don’t know. They just said would you be interested in playing on Earl Scruggs’ record?” and I said, “YEAH!” And I did a bad thing: I didn’t really warm up for a month ahead of time before I went there to the session. And Earl was there, you know, and when they played the tempo, I thought I was gonna die.
BNL: Were most of the musicians in the studio at that time?
SM: No, it was me, just me.
BNL: But Earl was there?
SM: Earl was present, and Randy was there, and Louise was there. You know in my prime I could play pretty fast, but uh, it was my prime [chuckle]. So it took me a while to get up to speed on it, I must say. It’s weird how little practice it take to get up to tempo; by the end of that session I was rolling around pretty good, you know.
BNL: How long was the session?
SM: a couple of hours. I have no idea what they did to it in the magic of editing.
BNL: and there’s a video clip of it?
SM: Yeah, there’s an MTV, CMT-type video. I think I’ve seen it once. It was fun.
BNL: Were all the musicians there at one time for the video shoot?
SM: I was alone.
BNL: And they cut you in?
SM: Yeah, editing. But that was fun, too. And then I played with them on the Letterman show. So that was fun. It’s inspired me to play again,
And I’ve been listening to a lot of banjo music.
BNL: Just playing at home for your own enjoyment?
SM: Yeah. Actually, we did a charity function, Tom Hanks on guitar, [comedian and director] Christopher Guest played mandolin, and we played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for Bill Clinton—and you know, a thousand other people, too. We sort of did a little comedy act. We did that recently; that was really fun.
BNL: So you hadn’t really been playing much at the time you got the call for the Earl Scruggs session?
SM: Periodically I’d pick it up, and then I wouldn’t for a couple of months, and then I’d pick it up a little bit. I have a banjo everywhere; I have a couple of houses, so I have a banjo always ready to go. Danny Farrington—do you know him? He makes guitars, he makes banjos—I had him set them up, because it had been so long since even the strings were changed, you know. He got into it and made them sound great. You know, these are precious instruments, and they can really sound good if you give them a little tweaking. So that helped, too, just to have them sound good again. But I have been really studious lately about it.
BNL: Have you been writing more tunes?
SM: No, I’m not writing.
BNL: Any plans for a banjo album?
SM: No, I don’t think I’m gonna do that. It’s strictly hobby and fun.
BNL: Will the banjo be featured in any upcoming movies or plays”
SM: I played the banjo in a movie I did called “Simple Twist Of Fate.” I do a little frailing medley in D. Do you know if Tony Ellis publishes any of the tablature on those songs?
BNL: I don’t know. If you searched on the web you might find something. You might try asking /BNL/.
SM: A while ago I found a Gibson site where you could identify your serial number and the dates and everything.
BNL: So you checked up on your Granada?
SM: Yeah, I did, I found them all. Or at least I found—let me put it this way: They list known banjos. I don’t think this banjo has ever been listed on the site, but I could see where the serial number fit, and the year.
BNL: I’m sure your aware there’s a long tradition of the banjo payer as a comedian. How do you see yourself fitting into that tradition?
SM: I don’t know much about who came before. I know Eddie Cantor played banjo, but that was four-string. It’s really quite separate. I mean, I really played seriously, and then put the banjo down and then did my comedy routine. But I found that when I was performing my standup act—sometimes I played to audiences of 20,000 or more—the thing I would practice before I went on was the banjo, even though it was the smallest part. I think it was some way relaxing in my head. You know, I would go over my material or anything; I’d just practice the banjo. I think it was a way of distracting myself.
BNL: Do you feel a difference between how you relate to an audience or feel in front of an audience when your playing your banjo, and how you feel whin doing comedy or acting?
SM: Well, you know it’s like having a prop in a way, ‘cause you’ve got it slung over you, and you can rest your arms on it. The main thing I feel about the banjo is my love of its sounds, you know, who /really/ make music from it—I don’t even know everybody’s name. Do you know the group Hot Rize?
BNL: Yeah, I live their stuff?
SM: I do too. I’m just sorry they’re not making records.
BNL: But they just came out with a recording of a live show they did in ’96.
SM: Yeah, I think I got that. And I love the banjo player.
BNL: Peter Wernick.
SM: Yeah, I love him. What I love about his playing is, it’s melodic, even in the backup.
BNL: You mentioned Tom Adams and Tony Ellis. Who else do you listen to?
SM: Contemporary guys? I don’t know the scene that well, really, so I would probably leave out important players.
BNL: That’s okay; I’m just asking who you like to listen to.
SM: I just bought a recording—I have to look on my computer to see who it is—of “Sitting On Top Of The World,” and I love the way the guy plays. It’s just old fashioned, really solid bluegrass. And of course Bill Keith—yeah, he’s a hero—and Earl. I was wondering today if “Foggy Mountain Banjo” was one of the first banjo records ever made—albums, I should say. There was another record I used to love, too, called “ Old-Time Banjo Project.” It was released in the ‘60s. It was like fifty different players, so I don’t remember all the names. Dick Rosmini, he’s on that record, “Five-String Banjo Greats,” and Dick Weissman, I think. You know, if I could I’d kidnap him and force him to show me how to play a couple of his tunes.
BNL: McEuen sent us some questions to ask you. “Why do you play the banjo? Has it been a space of comfort to go to for peace or relaxation, a space that has helped to contribute to your other accomplishments?”
SM: Well, you know, you play for comfort and fun. It’s not anything mysterious or ethereal, it’s just fun to play music. I had a party over here the other night, a couple of months ago with John; Kevin Nealon, who plays the banjo well—he was on “Saturday Night Live”—a funny comedian; Eric Idle [from Monty Python] plays guitar /really/ well—it’s folky, but everything is backed up with all the cords, not just the basic ones, and he’s a songwriter, too; and Billy Connolley—do you know him, the Scottish comedian?—he’s a frailer—real good. They were all at the house and we had a little session. Martin Mull he played guitar.
BNL”: Another McEuen question: “If there was one tune you wish you could paly the best, What is it?” And for that matter, what tune do you think you play the best?
SM: Gee, I wish I had a best tune. I really like solo improvising in G. You know, the bluegrassy sound. I put a pastiche together, about three different songs, just sitting around. I can frail a couple of tunes. I’ve picked out a couple of those Tony Ellis tunes. Like I say, I’ve been really working on “Nola,” but would never play it for anybody at this point. And you know, I will just sit down and play thirty songs in a row—“Salt Creek” or “Pick County Breakdown” or “Banjo Signal.” You know that one; I think it’s a good song for people that are not familiar with banjo music, ‘cause it’s very melodic and easy to hear. Oh, and I learned a [Censored for this supposedly G rated message board.] version of Bill Keith’s “Auld Lang Syne” with the Scruggs pegs, and I play “Grandfather’s Clock”—you know, typical repertoire.
BNL: I heard you had worked at Disneyland.
SM: Yeah. I worked there from when I was ten until I was eighteen. I was selling guidebooks. They wanted little kids in little outfits and little uniforms.
BNL: McEuen talked about seeing Herb Pendersen playing there.
SM: Oh, yes I definitely saw Dave Lindley play there. Did you know he plays the banjo?
BNL: He plays everything, doesn’t he?
SM: Yeah, right. He was on this record, “Five-String Banjo Greats,” and he played “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and frailed “The Johnson Boys.” He was a wizard, just great, at least for my ears at that time. He really motivated me to play the banjo, too.
BNL: Before we hang up, is there anything else you’d like to say? Any banjo-related stories? Any messages for the banjo community?
SM: I’d like to find my banjo that was stolen from me in 1972. It was an Ode, and it had my name on the neck.
SM: Yeah [laughs]. It was a new Ode.
BNL: We’ll put the word out.