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Music writing

Steve Martin’s fifth string

interior-stevemartin2Published in the Guardian on May 26, 2011.

When Steve Martin quit stand-up three decades ago, for a second career in the movies, he swore he would never perform live comedy again, because he found it too stressful to be on stage. But tonight, at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan, he’s cracking jokes and acting out sketches, just like the old days.

He’s here to perform songs from his second bluegrass album, Rare Bird Alert, with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As well as playing banjo, guitar, mandolin and upright bass with the fluency of virtuosos, they are the straight men in Martin’s comedy routines, supplying dead pan replies to his absurd reveries.

Martin begins the show with a volley of self-deprecating patter: his companions are “one of the best bluegrass bands in existence, and I’m about to ruin them.” But when the music starts, whether he’s playing in the three-finger style, with picks, or what’s known as clawhammer, using his nails, he can stand the pace. Although some of the breakdowns, in which each band member takes a solo, are lightning fast, Martin more than holds his own.

It’s not your typical bluegrass crowd. Some people have come to hear stand-up and Martin doesn’t disappoint. The new record is a guaranteed hit, he says, with a perfectly timed pause, because “tomorrow, I’m going to die of a Vicodin overdose. That’s just good marketing.”

Bluegrass has reawakened his love of performing live. In his autobiography, he writes that enjoyment is “an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.” As a band leader, he’s clearly having a great time. “I am enjoying myself, because I always have some place to go,” he says. “With comedy, you have no place to go but more comedy, so you’re never off the hook. Here, I can just start a song. Maybe my mind has changed, I’m happier, more experienced, or something.”

Backstage, there is a small collection of banjos, including his Depression-era Gibson Florentine, the first he ever owned. A plastic case for a roll of 35mm film, which in another star’s dressing room might contain cocaine, is where he keeps his picks. The index and middle fingers of his right hand are tipped with acrylic nail extensions, thick and slightly yellowing, as if he grew them himself.

When I ask him, in light of his on stage humility, whether a professional banjo player could tell that he’s a little less adept than his bandmates, his reply is a touch defensive, accompanied by that familiar, sheepish smile: “Well, I am a professional banjo player… Everybody has their own area of expertise, so I always feel a little inferior when I get around these great musicians who have done nothing else their whole lives. Of course, I’ve done other things, so I’m a little lacking and feel guilty about that.”

Martin taught himself to play the banjo during high school, with the help of his friend John McEuen, who later founded the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. After slowing down 33rpm records down to half speed and picking out the patterns note by note, he would sit outside his family’s house in his Chevrolet, plucking “so slowly that any melody was indecipherable,” with the windows closed, to avoid annoying his parents.

The instrument has been part of his act ever since. He’s carrying one on the very first page of his memoir, Born Standing Up, on his way to a gig at the Coffee & Confusion bar in San Francisco. In those early days, it was a means to fill time when he didn’t have enough jokes. Later, his finger-picking skills threw his goofy comedic persona into relief, reminding audiences that it requires talent and dedication to play dumb. His performance of Ramblin’ Man on the Muppet Show starts with a tricky arpeggiated riff, a cheesy grin and a self-administered pat on the back: “Hey, this guy’s good.”interior-stevemartin

With a toy arrow through his head, few people noticed Martin’s musicianship. But in his spare time, as one of the world’s most bankable movie stars, he has been an evangelist for the five-string banjo. When Earl Scruggs, a founding father of bluegrass, asked him to play on a new recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, in 2001, Martin started to wonder whether he could take up music seriously. His first collection of original songs, The Crow, won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album last year.

Although he describes himself as a “complete leftie” (and was “dumbstruck” to meet Pete Seeger as a young man) Martin’s bluegrass steers clear of politics. Rare Bird Alert features whimsical digressions about break-ups, atheism and fly-fishing, plus several instrumentals and two love songs. The first, You, is sung by the Dixie Chicks, looking back at a past relationship. On Best Love, a declaration of married contentment, Paul McCartney sings the lead.

The idea of roping in Macca came from Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who told Martin “you don’t impose on your friends enough.” Having only met him three times, Martin didn’t consider the former Beatle a friend, but after an exchange of emails, McCartney agreed to take part, initially thinking he would only be handling backing vocals. The minute he heard Martin’s practice version, he changed his mind. “Paul arrived [at the session] and said ‘you know, when you said you were a terrible singer, I thought you were being humble, but you weren’t.’” Live, Martin employs his holler sparingly, to great effect, and leaves most of the singing to the Steep Canyon Rangers.

I ask Martin whether he has encountered any resentment on the bluegrass circuit, particularly following his Grammy win, where the other nominees included some of the genre’s most respected names. “The Grammys don’t represent roots bluegrass people: the International Bluegrass Music Association does,” he says. “We were nominated there for six awards, but we didn’t win. I didn’t expect to and wouldn’t have felt comfortable winning, because there were too many guys that have put in their dues for years and years there.

“We’ve played at bluegrass festivals and the reception has been fantastic. We were nominated for six awards – me, an actor – and you would think that there would be a little… you know. But no, these people are like friends.”

Last year, Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers was the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, picking up a cheque for $50,000, drawn from Martin’s personal account, the idea being to encourage acoustic folk music at grassroots level. “I think there are people writing original bluegrass songs, but it’s hard to get them out on the air. I get a leg up,” he admits.

In the sleeve notes for Rare Bird Alert, there’s a phrenological diagram of Martin’s head, complete with the false nose he wore for Roxanne, his remake of Cyrano De Bergerac. The sections of his brain, as illustrated, include author, actor, banjo player, magician, composer, art collector, ‘eruditer’ and human cannonball. Having reached retirement age (he turned 65 last year) Martin is busier than ever, choosing only projects that interest him.

His latest film, The Big Year, a comedy about competitive bird-watching co-starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson, is due out this autumn. His novel about the Manhattan art world, An Object of Beauty, was mainly well-received when it was published last year. After being introduced to the medium by Tom Hanks, he has become a Twitter addict, using it as an outlet for one-liners and surreal routines that would once have been part of his act.

In the mid-1970s, Martin was a regular on The Tonight Show. One evening the host, Johnny Carson, leaned over to him during a commercial break and whispered prophetically “you’ll use everything you ever knew.” Martin had already worked the magic tricks he learned as a teenager into his act. The rope tricks would come later, in Three Amigos, with Chevy Chase and Martin Short. “I already knew what he meant, because I was going through my catalogue of stuff,” Martin says, “but I didn’t know playing the banjo would blossom into this. I thought it was done.”

At the end of the gig, he demands a standing ovation, with typical mock arrogance, and gets it. The applause is heartfelt, and clearly for the music, not his jokes or his celebrity. “I’ve never advertised that it’s comedy,” he says. “I’m sneaking in a bit more because I never want people to be disappointed. And I don’t feel that they do. They leave in a really good mood, and informed, in some way.”