“When I heard the banjo, bingo”: Steve Martin trades comedy for clawhammer

In The Jerk (which Steve Martin co-wrote and starred in, in 1979), his character Navin R. Johnson (a rhythmless white child raised by an African-American family) finally realizes he can dance. “It’s unbelievable! I’ve never heard music like this before! It speaks to me … This is the kind of music that tells me to go out there and be somebody!”

In fact, Martin has always had the rhythm. Though he’s been best known for his turns on the big screen, the little screen (Saturday Night Live) and sometimes behind the scenes (he also penned films like Roxanne and Shop Girl), the whip-smart comic is also a crack musician, playing three-finger and clawhammer banjo for the last 40-plus years. The May release of The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo (Rounder, 2009), showcases Martin as both a picker and songwriter, his collection of mostly originals performed with the help of some impressive friends: Mary Black, Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick.

“It’s a major difference when you write a tune and then you have the absolute best possible people for that song recording it,” Martin tells Xpress. In fact, the star-studded aspect of Crow was a departure from Martin’s previous banjo playing. In the album’s liner notes he admits that “I have loved the banjo my whole life” and that “When I heard the banjo on Kingston Trio and Flatt and Scruggs records, bingo. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one…” The folk instrument became, for Martin, a passtime on the movie set and a means of relaxation before standup shows.

“It was some sort of Zen state,” Martin explained in a recent press conference. Performing the odd banjo song before a comedy routine “was important to my mood and important to the show. The comedy world looks so ad lib, I wanted something to show that I was able to do something difficult.”

There is nothing about Crow that comes off as ad libbed. Instead, it’s a thoughtful and honed collection of 16 songs, some dating back to Martin’s earliest years with the instrument. There is a hint of Martin’s comedic background in the fervid “Late For School” (the only track with Martin on vocals), but other offerings are sweetly romantic (“Pretty Flowers”) and amply hooky (“Daddy Played the Banjo”). Martin’s raw material shines, but the addition of bluegrass and folk greats lends a spit shine to the end product. “It almost seems unfair,” Martin tells Xpress about working with Gill, Parton and company. “They’re making it into magic. I think it’s a little bit like when a playwright hears his words on stage for the first time. There’s a real thrill when I’m hearing Dolly and Vince, Mary Black and Tim O’Brien sing.”

He adds, “The great thing is I never felt like they were doing it because of me. They really liked the songs. That was a real thrill, too.”

Others like the songs, too. The album recently received six nominations (including best banjo player and best instrumental recorded performance of the year) for the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. Crowe reached the number one slot on Billboard’s bluegrass chart. Of the title track (recorded with Tony Trischka) Martin writes, “The song had a surprising afterlife, appearing on the bluegrass charts, making it my first hit single in 30 years. (The other was ‘King Tut.’)”

When it came time to tour the album Martin (who appeared on this year’s American Idol finale and who, obviously, has access to the best players in the business) tapped Asheville’s Steep Canyon Rangers. “They’re such genuine people,” he says of the band who he met when visiting Western N.C. with his wife.

“My wife spends in North Carolina,” Martin tells the press. “She said, ‘This group is going to come over to play.’ I thought, ‘The local group. We’ll see.’ They were great.” So, at age 64, the actor finds himself on a band tour for the first time—a prospect about which he admits to being nervous.

“On the one hand, the music world is very strict because you’ve got to be good. On the other hand, as opposed to comedy, a song lasts three minutes whereas a joke only lasts six seconds,” he tells the press. “When I was on stage doing comedy, I was alone. Here, I’m with five people.”

Prior to the tour (which kicks off with the Grammy Salute to Country Music in Nashville and the Mountain Song Festival in Brevard this week), Martin played a string of six shows in his hometown Los Angeles to get comfortable, though he seems to be looking forward to bringing his songs to the Southeast. “When you play in North Carolina and Kentucky where the music originated, you feel like people understand it deeply,” he tells the press.

Martin’s first move from living room picker to recording artist came about seven years ago when Earl Scruggs who he knew “from the old days” urged Martin to play on an album. After that, he hosted an evening of banjo music for The New Yorker Festival and “the world started opening up.” But the actor/writer also sees himself as something of a bridge between the bluegrass and folk music world and audiences who may not normally come in contact with such music. “I have access to these television shows, so I can bring the banjo to turn them on,” he says in a press conference. “I asked the record company people, ‘What’s The View got to do with selling bluegrass albums?’”

Turns out, Martin’s appearances on shows like The View and Good Morning America did sell albums and generate new fans. So, is this a new career path for the comedian?

“I thought, okay, these songs were a long time coming,” Martin tells Xpress. “But since [releasing Crowe] I’ve written four new songs. We’re playing two or three of them on stage now. I did think, ‘Gee, it would be fun to have a really fast song for the stage,’ and so I wrote a fast song. So I guess in that sense it did affect my song writing, but I don’t know. It’s all too knew, so I don’t know what will happen other than these four new songs.”

He adds, “I don’t know if I’ll get enough for another album, but I certainly plan on doing another record if I get enough songs. Definitely.”

Steve Martin performs with Steep Canyon Rangers at Mountain Song Festival at the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium in Brevard on Saturday, Sept. 12 at 5 p.m. The festival runs from 2-10 p.m. on Saturday; gates open at noon. Auditorium seating is sold out, lawn seats are $30. 800-514-3849.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on ““When I heard the banjo, bingo”: Steve Martin trades comedy for clawhammer

  1. Jeff Spicoli

    Well glad Martin is bringing a new spotlight to our mountain music. But, if he wasn’t famous, there is no reason Earl Scruggs and Dolly Parton would pay attention to him. I will be going down to Brevard like I usually do this time of year. I’ll let you know if he is worth the listen. At least the Rangers will be.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.