Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Good article on Steve and the banjo
Toronto Star
Steve Martin in the banjo underground
Aug 16, 2009 04:30 AM

It's no surprise to his more devoted fans to see comedian/actor and playwright/novelist Steve Martin hitting the road at long last with his banjo.

A master of the three-finger picking style for which his mentor, banjo legend Earl Scruggs, is known, Martin began featuring the traditional folk instrument, albeit in a coy, self-deprecating way, in his comic routines 30 years ago.

But to anyone who was familiar with the five-string banjo, it was clear, even then, that the wild and crazy guy with the fake arrow through his head was a serious picker, just lacking confidence.

The banjo has never been far from his side throughout his long performing career. In dressing rooms, hotel suites, and on movie sets, one of his instruments — he owns three rare and valuable Gibson Florentine banjos — is always close at hand.

And banjo music has been a consuming passion for Martin since the folk boom years of the 1960s, he said in a phone interview this week from his home in Los Angeles. While others flocked to music stores to buy guitars, he was checking out the far more demanding — and not nearly as cool — banjo, and hunting down recordings of old-time Appalachian bluegrass bands.

"I just loved the sound of it from the first time I heard it," Martin said amid preparations for a tour that brings him — and sidekicks, the Steep Canyon Band, from North Carolina — to Roy Thomson Hall Oct. 15.

"Nothing else sounds like the banjo. It's the show-off instrument in bluegrass, both percussive and melodic, and capable of such an incredible range of emotions, from joy to melancholy."

Following up on the critical praise heaped on his recently released Rounder Records album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, comprising banjo-dominated bluegrass instrumentals and folksy ballads — most of them written by Martin — and encouraged by enthusiastic responses this summer to a couple of guest appearances at high-profile festivals and a handful of sold-out small-venue shows in New York and L.A., the famed comedian and movie star is reinventing himself as a banjo virtuoso, with concerts booked in coming weeks at Carnegie Hall, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.

"I'm playing live venues again for the first time in 30 years, now that the pressure is off," Martin said.

Though he has played continually for his own amusement, and occasionally picked up bluegrass recordings in record stores, Martin credits satellite radio for increasing his appetite for banjo music. "It was fantastic. I could just tune into the bluegrass channel and listen to music I'd never have been able to find any other place," he said.

But it was Scruggs' invitation six years ago to do a little picking on his Earl Scruggs and Friends album — featuring bluegrass, country music, pop and rock stars — and the success of his Grammy-winning version of the bluegrass staple "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," a duet with Martin, that got his strings really vibrating.

"A couple of years later (famed banjo master) Tony Trischka asked me to play on one of his sessions, and I figured there must be 500 pickers better than me," Martin continued. "I said I'd do it if I could bring something original to the table, a piece I'd written called 'The Crow.' That's really how this whole thing began."

"The Crow" actually became something of a cult hit — Martin's second, after his 1978 novelty breakout, "King Tut" — and since he had several other original songs lying around, some dating back to the 1960s, he decided to record them, with the help of long-time friend, banjo instructor and producer, John McEuen. Country, folk and bluegrass greats such as Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas, Mary Black, David Amram, Stuart Duncan, Russ Barenberg, Trischka and Scruggs, also contributed.

Though The Crow was, he said, "motivated by idleness — just sitting around with nothing to do," he's more than pleased with the result.

"I'm very happy with the record. But I've been writing and playing so much since it was finished, and my chops are so much better. I wish I could do it all over again. And I've written five new songs that I wish we could have recorded as well."

Billed in the liner notes as "the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe, and that includes possible alternative universes, too," The Crow is hard to dismiss as a movie star's vanity sideline project. The focus of the entire effort is on Martin's own compositions and smart finger work, and both stand up to the intense scrutiny of a really picky audience.

"The banjo culture might be underground, but it's vast," Martin said. "It extends to England, Ireland, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, even Switzerland – I'm just beginning to learn how deep and wide the banjo world is. In North America, banjo playing is like a contact sport, with contests all over the place."

Not that he interesting in competing. "I just want to stick with it," he added. "There are better pickers than me, and there always will be, and certainly better singers. But my audience seems to understand I'm serious about this — and I make it clear to them what they're in for — and I've had no difficulty getting them to come along for the ride."

Where the ride will take him, Martin doesn't care.

"It seems to be keeping Alzheimer's at bay," he said. "And that's a good thing."


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