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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Article about Steve's love of the banjo

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Globe and Mail/Arts

Steve Martin's love affair with the banjo
Steve Martin performs at Club Nokia on May 11, 2009 in Los Angeles.

Steve Martin performs at Club Nokia on May 11, 2009 in Los Angeles. Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

‘The banjo is the most undemanding thing in my life. It's always there for you'

Brad Wheeler

From Thursday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 10:10AM EDT

“The banjo generated nostalgia for experiences I never had, joy I was yet to experience and melancholy that was yet to come.” – Steve Martin, on discovering the instrument as a teenager

But seriously folks, Steve Martin plays the banjo – seriously. The man who would go on to stick arrows in his head, star in The Jerk , write novels and plays and collect art was once a frustrated novice banjo player. Although the plinky five-string mountain-music thing confounded him – “it shouldn't even be playable, but it is” – he had the notion that if he just kept at it, the day would eventually come when he'd have been playing the banjo for 45 years.

Now, with this week's release of The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, a bluegrass album featuring his songs and his playing, Martin's earnestness pays off. The album's subtitle is deceiving – many of the songs are not new, but rerecorded versions of tunes from his 1981 comedy album The Steve Martin Brothers, which featured a complete side of banjo tracks recorded in the seventies.

The new CD, which reached the top of Billboard's bluegrass chart upon its January release on, is as much about Martin's relationship with the instrument as it is about the delightful and spry music. “The banjo is the most undemanding thing in my life,” says Martin from his Los Angeles home, which he shares with his dog and his second wife. “It's always there for you.”

Martin's rapport with the banjo is wryly explained in the generous liner notes that come with the CD. Song-by-song comments tell us that the title track, helped in its development by contemporary players Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, instigated the new album. It was originally recorded for Trischka's Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular and it became a hit single (his first since the nutty King Tut 30 years earlier) on the bluegrass charts.

The booklet's introduction – which begins with “I have loved the banjo my whole life” – is heartfelt, and the song notes are illuminating. Because bluegrass banjo is not mainstream music, you wonder if the background material is included to give needed context to the songs. Not at all, explains Martin, 63. “I'm a writer, and I grew up with the tradition of liner notes. In the sixties, every album had them, especially the music I was listening to, folk and bluegrass music. Every song had a tradition.”

It was in the sixties that Martin, at 18, taught himself the banjo. Motivated by Earl Scruggs's rendition of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, he would slow down banjo records on his turntable and pick out songs note-by-note, with the help of high-school chum and banjo player John McEuen. (A friend to this day, McEuen produced The Crow.) So as to not annoy his family or anyone else, Martin would practise in his car, parked on the street, with the windows rolled up even in the heat of the California summer.

People can hear Martin now, and although his celebrity will undoubtedly draw new fans to the bluegrass genre, he doesn't see himself as any sort of ambassador. “It's not my job to promote the banjo,” says Martin, the owner of a collection of vintage instruments, including two Depression-era Gibson Florentines and a Gibson Granada. “I'm just playing my music.”

Still, Martin knows that the project can only help create exposure for bluegrass – if not through the album itself, then through his talk-show appearances. “You don't really see five-string banjo on Letterman or Leno or Saturday Night Live,” he says. “I know, by the numbers, [the music is] reaching a lot more people this way.”

More people will be reached when Martin hits the road on a tour that stops in Toronto in October. The former standup comedian, who once padded routines by juggling kitties, twisting balloons and playing the banjo, will now feature his banjo music exclusively. “I'm just feeling my way around to get it to where it's easy and fun to do,” Martin says. “I'm trying to make this as fun as possible.”

Steve Martin plays Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 15; tickets on sale Aug. 21.


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