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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Tell us a little bit about how and when you first picked up a banjo and who your musical influences were at the time?

I would’ve been 17. It would’ve been about 1962. I lived in Orange County, Calif. And this was during a folk music craze that was led by the Kingston Trio, who used a banjo. That was quickly replaced because I heard Earl Scruggs play, which is a whole other level. And then I heard the Dillards play live and that was another different level. Because when you hear somebody play live you can’t believe what the five string banjo is doing.

And then I just got into it. I started finding records. There were a lot of banjo compilation records with different players. I also had a friend in high school—John McEuen—who became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band. He taught me a lot. I just got very lucky. And I really practiced hard especially early on. It was a struggle, because I was doing other things too, and I didn’t have people to play with. That led to me writing a lot of songs. Because I didn’t have people to play with, I didn’t learn much of the canon of bluegrass. I really learned my own songs.

Did you intend to become a musician then, rather than an actor or a comedian?

I was always aiming to be in show business. And I really liked the idea of playing on stage; I liked the ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo. I really liked that. But my heart was in comedy, and that's where the fortunes led me. I used the banjo on stage during my comedy shows in a kind of comedic way and also in a serious way. I always played a serious banjo song at least once during my shows.

Connecticut is not really known as bluegrass country. Is coming here a way of spreading the bluegrass gospel?

Well, I don’t think of it as "spreading the gospel." I’ve never taken a poll, but I think a lot of the audience that comes to our show either doesn’t know bluegrass at all or kind of knows it. And I think they always leave thinking, "Wow, that was fantastic." Not so much thanks to me but thanks to The Steep Canyon Rangers. And we also do comedy—or I do comedy in the show. So it’s never like one song after another. That could get old if you’re not into this form of music. My feeling is that people leave really happy and maybe want to continue sampling this kind of music.

And also, I think it fits in with a certain kind of hall, where people see a concerto one week and Chinese jugglers the next, and then they see us. It’s all part of a cultural mélange that gets booked into those kinds of theaters. I’m really happy to be part of that, because we get invited back to places the next year. At least, so far—we've only been performing for a year. But I think that’s really a nice tribute to the music and what’s going on on stage.

Do you feel any pressure to perhaps step up the tempo when you play to "Northern audiences," for lack of a better term?

Not at all. In fact, if anything the opposite is true. If we’re playing a bluegrass show for a bluegrass audience that’s when we really feel pressure. We almost want to do less of a "show" and really concentrate on the more complex songs. But we played MerleFest and the truth is we didn’t change a thing, and they loved it just as much. So I’m contradicting myself.

You’ve covered "King Tut" live with the Rangers. I wanted to know if you could talk about how the decision was made to play that particular number and if there was any trepidation or reluctance from you about playing that song with this group.

Let’s put it this way. There was a little trepidation. But also it was my idea. I thought it was a funny idea to do a bluegrass "King Tut." We’ve been very lucky in that, you know, I do comedy in the show but when the music comes along the audience is able to just transform itself and take it seriously. Some of the songs are funny. A lot of the songs are serious. And there’s really been no problem with the audience adjusting itself to whatever the next beat is. And "King Tut" is always an encore. It’s never treated as a big serious number in the middle of the show.

We don’t always do it, by the way. We do it occasionally. I’m sure we’ll do it in Vegas, because what would be more appropriate? I worked there as a stand-up comedian in the '70s. But I did question putting it on the record. The reason I finally included it was I also want people to know that our live show is fun.—that when they come to the live show it’s not going to be me standing on stage with my back to the audience playing 30 songs in a row with no comedy.

Tell me a little bit about how you kept up with the music scene when you were doing music and comedy and everything else. I mean, are you somebody as a banjo player that kept up, you know, Béla Fleck and all the different people who were . . .

Well, you know, it was hard to keep up until the Internet came along. Once that happened,  it meant that you could suddenly find bluegrass records. And satellite radio—with satellite radio you could suddenly get radio stations, and bluegrass stations, from across the country in your own home. That opened a whole new world for me. Because if I went to a record store, I didn’t even know what was good or what was bad. And suddenly I was able to hear it on the radio. I could also randomly buy records of banjo players on Amazon or iTunes. I started to hear music that I really, really loved. That got me back into it again.

Did that help inspire you as a song writer?

No. It was later that I got back into songwriting. Because I got back into the banjo in a more serious way, I got back to songwriting by default. That was always my way.

Going into the making of your first album, The Crow, was there anything in particular that dictated that this was a good moment for you to pursue the banjo and bluegrass full-time, after having played it for so long? And now, with two fine albums to your credit, do you see banjo and bluegrass as having an ongoing place in your career in the future?

I think it does have a place for me because one, I love it. And the songs keep coming. We’ve got at least four new songs that I think are really good. I've even started to wonder why an album needs 13 or 14 songs; nobody has time to listen to them anyway.  Maybe we could do an album of four songs. But we’ll see about that.

I do kind of like having the outlet to play music because it uses a different part of my brain. I like the camaraderie of it. I like improving my musicianship. I also enjoy doing the comedy portions on stage in small doses. I definitely wouldn’t want to be doing stand-up again. I also like that I have five other guys on stage with me who are great, who have the same sensibility I do—at least when we're playing together—and who are, in a weird way, reluctant comedians rather than show boaters. I think our shared attitude works really well for us. 

As for why I thought the time was right for The Crow . . . it was just all accidents. I had recorded a song for Tony Trischka that I had written, called "The Crow," on his double banjo album. Then it just dawned on me, maybe I’ll like host an album where I play four of my songs and have other people play theirs as a way to present the banjo to the world. And then I looked and I said, "Well, I actually have enough of my own." And then I had a week open. So I just . . . I didn’t have a deal. I just paid for the album myself and got John McEuen to produce it and found the deal later to release the record.

This is the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth . . .

 Yes, it is.

 Do you have any Bill Monroe stories?

Not a one. But you know, I came late to Bill Monroe because the first—let’s say "old-timers"—I got into were Flatt & Scruggs. Eventually, I realized that he wrote all the songs I really loved. And so I really have only become a fan, I'd say, within the last 15 years.  I just think he’s the greatest. I have heard some lore, but I don’t have any really good stories that haven’t already been iterated by somebody else.

Are you surprised that people find it harder to believe that a comedian can write and perform serious music than a serious musician can do comedy?

I think it is unusual, only because there’s few examples of it. You know, I was going to suggest to a friend of mine who’s a singer—Steve Tyrell—he’s a really good crooner, who plays the Carlyle Café in Manhattan and other fancy night clubs. I was going to suggest to him that he sing, "Smile, though your heart is aching." And then do the song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," and then sing a song from my record—"You"—which is kind of an emotional ballad. The first song was written by Charlie Chaplin. The second song was written by Steve Allen—you may or may not know him, I don’t know—and the third one was written by me. That’s the only three comedians I can think of who actually wrote songs. So I can understand that, because it is a little odd. But singers can certainly do comedy . . . think of Dean Martin.

Q & A: Steve Martin

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