Q & A: Steve Martin
The actor, playwright, composer, author, comedian and—as he would have it, "eruditer" and "human cannon ball"—talks about his two current passions, banjo and bluegrass.
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A loud and clear disclaimer: This Is Not My Interview. Rather, it's a transcript of a telephone conference with Steve Martin, conducted on April 14, 2011, attended by a host of journalists from all over the country, so 99.9 percent of the questions are theirs. A lot of transcript editing was done for the sake of clarity—assuming no one wants to read every "Thank you," "Hi, Steve" or "you know"—but for the most part, the questions and answers are represented in their entirety and in the order in which they occurred.
Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers (banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt, bass player Charles R. Humphrey III, fiddle player Nicky Sanders and mandolin player Mike Guggino) play the Warner Theatre in Torrington June 30. For more info, call (860) 489-7180 or visit warnertheatre.org.
Steve Martin: Hi everyone. Thanks for getting on line—getting on the phone. I know you can’t say anything but. . .
Actually I wanted to say that Rare Bird Alert sounds amazing.
Thank you very much. We’re very happy with it.
I love the song "Atheists Don’t Have No Songs." And I wondered if you’d share the story behind that track and talk a little bit about how it’s been received.
Well, you know, the story is in the liner notes and I’ll reiterate it because it’s actually true. Because I used to listen to The Steep Canyon Rangers sing their gospel song during the show.
I started thinking about—what I actually say in the show is that religious people have this great art and great music and atheists really don’t have anything. So I thought it’d be really funny to write a hymn for atheists. I had the idea for a long time and I sat down and I wrote all these lyrics. I knew it needed a kind of gospel music but I didn’t really know how to write gospel music. So I presented the idea to the Rangers and they said, "Yeah, we can think about it." I gave them all the lyrics, And then one day Woody and Graham showed up with the tune and I just loved it.
I was a little afraid because it had all these high notes in it and I said, "I’m really worried about singing this. I practiced it so I could do it. But we didn’t know how it was going to be received. We decided to try it one night in a show. In the middle of it the audience started laughing, and we just kind of looked at each other—we knew we had, you know, a new four minutes for our show. We were all so excited that it worked so well.
I wanted to ask you what you thought of Tony Trischka as a banjo player and what he brought to the album as a producer.
Well, I love him as a banjo player. You know, I just did a concert at—I didn’t do a concert, James Taylor did a concert and he asked me to do some stuff on the show. Some of it involved playing along with James Taylor songs. And, you know, I don’t really have those chops. So I went to Tony and I said, "Can you help me?" There’s a lot of flatted-seventh minor chords that just don’t really come up in bluegrass. And so I asked him and he just had all these chops down and really helped me through those songs. In fact I played those better than I did my own songs.
My first CD, The Crow, was kind of a produced record and this is more of a band record. He really knew how to do that. You know, he can just evaluate the sound of the banjo and the sound of the band so well. And he’s easy to get along with. That’s what we all needed. He had the patience to sit and listen to us. And he also—I know the word is "arranged"—but I should say he choreographed a lot of the songs, too, so that was really nice.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Woody [Platt] about a year ago. And he told me about the first time that you all met and got together for a very informal picking session, when you and your wife were on vacation down in Brevard [N.C.]. And I found myself wondering what was that like for you in terms of the chemistry? Was it sort of an immediate thing? How did that sort of develop into this project going back to that first very informal jam . . .
Well, I didn’t know what to expect. They just said a local band was coming over. I didn’t know if they were professional or, you know, a get-together-Sunday-afternoons kind of band. But I immediately could see that they were pros. And I was a little cowed by it, actually.
And then a couple of times after that, you know, we played some songs together on stage, like one or two songs. And I couldn’t believe how my songs sounded. They never really sounded that good to me before. These guys have the same sense of drama that I have, which I like. It just went from there. When my agent said, "Well, you’ve got to go on the road to promote this album and you need a band," I said, "I know who to ask."
It’s just one of those lucky things in life, that you accidentally get tied up with a group or a group of people that works out perfectly for both of you. It continues to be a good creative match both musically and stage-wise. I think our show has developed into something really nice too.
Woody told me, "We get very very few complaints or questions from bluegrass purists about playing with Steve. We had one person ask us why are you playing with Steve Martin? But they were unaware of his prowess on the banjo." And I find myself wondering, on the other hand, do you get people who come out seeing your name on the marquee—Steve Martin—and don’t realize that these guys that you’re playing with are a very accomplished bluegrass band in their own right?
I’ve never had that. From the very first day The Rangers have gotten rave reviews. So in a sense a lot of people didn’t know the The Steep Canyon Rangers and that’s a great place to come from for people who are coming to see me because they go, "Wow, those guys were great." I’m really glad about that, that they’re seeing a highly polished tight band. Because it reflects well on me. You know, Jack Benny had a rule—he didn’t care who got the laugh on his radio show because it all reflected well on him. And I have the same belief that the band plays great, the band is tight, the audience loves the band, that reflects well on the show. So that’s been really good.
I also had a chance to speak with Woody and the guys in the last week or so and he had a lot of great things to say about you. He said that after this much touring and doing Rare Bird Alert it’s no longer, you know, Steve and the Rangers but it’s its own band. I was wondering what’s your take on that. And was it hard at first kind of coming into such a tight knit group?
Yes, it was, because I’ve never played with a group in my life. I used to travel with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—open the show for them and maybe play one or two songs with them on stage. But I had never played with a group. And it did take me a while to get used to it. The first time I appeared on Letterman it wasn’t with The Steep Canyon Rangers. It was with some very good players. We were promoting The Crow. After, I got a call from my friend Pete Wernick and he said, ""By the way, when the other person is playing it’s customary to look at them." And I said, "Oh, really?" So I was kind of learning these little things as I went along.
It took me a while to get relaxed enough just to look away from the banjo neck every once in a while—common things that people who have been playing music on stage for years and years just do automatically. And now I feel 100 percent comfortable on stage playing music. But the only way you get relaxed is to do a hundred shows in a row. By show 20 or 30 or 40 it’s just another day in the life. It’s like fear of flying. If you have fear of flying, my aunt says, just take 30 flights in a row. And by the 16th or 17th flight you won’t be afraid anymore. It’ll just be another day.