Steve Martin: Bluegrass and Banjo

steve martin banjo

steve martin

Steve Martin

As Steve Martin, 68, racks up Grammys, he has been spreading his wings into new musical territory. His 2013 CD Love Has Come for You, a joint project with Edie Brickell, earned them a Grammy for Best American Roots Song for its title tune.

Martin’s latest 2014 release is the joint live concert CD and DVD set: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers Featuring Edie Brickell Live. Recorded last fall for PBS Great Performances at Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside, California, it features songs from Love Has Come for You and Martin’s other music albums: Rare Bird Alert and The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.

Though most of us knew Martin first as a comedian and actor, he began his musical life even earlier. In fact, he claims he’s loved the banjo for his whole life, and played it “seriously” for more than 50 years. “I always loved the sound of the banjo when I first heard it at age 16. It affected me like no other instrument,” says Martin who recalls being intrigued by the instrument on recordings from The Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, and Earl Scruggs.

Mind Set on Banjo

Steve Martin

At first, Martin learned by pure perseverance. He’d had little musical training and couldn’t even hear the differences between chords when he started. “The banjo, being very loud, is not welcome in the house when you’re first starting out,” he says. “I used to practice in the car, late at night, and even then, it would echo down the street, so I closed the windows to the car and that quieted it down a lot.”

Martin concedes it took several years before the playing really started to “click.” “I didn’t take consistent lessons, but many people gave me pointers through the years,” he says, recalling some of the players he’s had an opportunity to learn from: “John McEuen in the early days, Pete Seeger’s book, Peter Wernick, Marc Johnson, and even Earl Scruggs, himself.”

Each taught him little bits along the way as he continued to develop his chops. For example, he credits childhood friend McEuen with teaching him “D tuning” at age 19.

Martin was inspired to write the songs that went onto his first album, The Crow (2009), after Earl Scruggs asked him to play on his Earl Scruggs and Friends (2001) album. Scruggs and Martin recorded “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and that led to a flurry of creativity for Martin, who had years earlier written five of the songs that made it on the album.

A real Renaissance man, Martin has for years held simultaneous careers in comedy, film, writing, and music. He first publicly performed on his banjo as part of his stand-up act. “I had a lot of small venues I was playing as a comedian and I worked up some short songs I could play and incorporated some jokes,” says the comedian who has since “retired” from stand-up, though he does include some comedy as part of his musical shows.


From Musical Comedian to Funny Musician

Steve Martin

So, for Martin, his performance onstage has kind of come full circle. He went from throwing a little bit of banjo music into his comic routine, to presenting two-hour musical performances on stage, with a little bit of comedy thrown in. It’s an outcome he never could have anticipated.

Like many songwriters, once Martin got in the habit of writing music, the tunes seemed to come out of nowhere and from everywhere. Many of the songs on Martin’s second album, including the title track, “Rare Bird Alert,” were inspired while he was working on the film The Big Year about bird watching.

It was after his release of his first album, The Crow, which won a 2010 Grammy for best bluegrass album, that music became a priority. “I went on the road with The Steep Canyon Rangers and really enjoyed it, [and I began] working very hard on my ‘stage playing’ confidence,” says Martin. Years earlier he’d met and jammed with the North Carolina band, who are old friends of his wife, Anne.

Martin holds his own with this talented group of decades-younger musicians—Woody Platt (guitar and lead singer), Nicky Sanders (fiddle), Charles Humphrey (bass), Mike Guggino (mandolin), and Graham Sharp (five-string banjo). By the time he’d begun working with them, they had already made a name for themselves, winning the International Bluegrass Music Association’s emerging artist award in 2006.

Rather than sticking to one style Martin plays both three-finger and clawhammer (frailing) banjo. He says he was compelled to learn frailing the very first time he heard it. Unlike three-finger, clawhammer is played without picks and uses the thumb and back of the fingernail to produce melody, he explains.

“I love both styles, and I’m so glad I forged ahead and learned both,” he says. “Three-finger is good for certain songs and clawhammer is good for others. Clawhammer sounds better solo than three-finger. The chords are richer and fuller. When I’m writing I often compose on the clawhammer banjo as I get a better chord feel.”

World Class Collaborations

steve martin and edie brickell

Martin has been lucky enough to collaborate with a wide range of very talented musicians, many of whom have appeared on his albums. On The Crow’s “Calico Train” you can hear the voice of Irish singer Mary Black. Earl Scruggs was a big influence on that first album and he plays on the tunes “Pretty Flowers” and “Daddy Played the Banjo.” Appropriately enough, Scrugg’s son Gary, helped with the lyrics for that tune.

On Rare Bird Alert Paul McCartney adds vocals to “Best Love” and The Dixie Chicks sing on “You.” Love Has Come for You includes musicians Esperanza Spalding (bass), Sara Watkins (fiddle), Sean Watkins (guitar), and The Webb Sisters (vocals). All of the songs were co-written with Edie Brickell, who wrote and sings most of the lyrics.

“Her lyrics made my banjo tunes be much more than banjo tunes,” says Martin, about the project that came together almost accidentally after a chance meeting. “We were talking at a party and she suggested we try and write a song together,” recalls Martin. “One thing led to another, and eventually, we had 13 songs.”

Up next for Martin and Brickell is a theater project. “Edie and I have written a musical that we’re very excited about. It is being directed by Walter Bobbie who directed Chicago on Broadway,” says Martin. The play called Bright Star is set in 1945 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Due to his popularity as an actor, Martin has become somewhat of an ambassador for the banjo and bluegrass, and more widely, American roots music. He does his part to encourage the next generation of players by awarding an annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

“We keep our eyes and ears open all year for exciting players,” he says, explaining that there’s a board that selects a winner. “We try to acknowledge players who will create excitement for the banjo and bluegrass, as well as in other forms of music.”

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

Related posts

Leave a Reply