June 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Steve Martin gets (mostly) serious about making music

Steve Martin says he first fell in love with the banjo as a teenager. (Robyn Beck / Getty Images)

During his decades-long career as comedian, actor, author and playwright, Steve Martin has often had a sidekick: his banjo.

Martin frequently played the banjo during his comedic sketches, but these days, the instrument and his passion for bluegrass are center stage in his enduring career. The versatile Emmy winner and multiple Golden Globe nominee, who has been recording regularly the past several years, is touring with the bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers and singer-guitarist Edie Brickell.

The group appears Thursday at the Sound Board at MotorCity Casino in Detroit.

Martin’s musical talents have won him three Grammy Awards, including one for his 2013 collaboration with Brickell. Martin previously won Grammy Awards for his comedy albums in the 1970s, including “Let’s Get Small,” which featured some of his banjo playing.

Martin, 68, who refers to his flourishing banjo career as “serendipity,” started by doing some recordings he wrote with a friend, he recalls during a phone interview last week. Eventually, a song Martin wrote got some airplay on bluegrass stations.

“I kept writing music and it slowly evolved into a record,” he adds.

The serious music career might seem like a long stretch from his days as a stand-up comedian in the mid-1970s. Martin was a recurring guest host on “Saturday Night Live” and his whimsical song “King Tut,” which he previewed on SNL in 1978, earned a gold record.

Martin parlayed his comedic skills into movies, including “The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “Three Amigos,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “It’s Complicated.”

These days, it’s more about music for the man who twice hosted the Academy Awards (he also was duo host with Alec Baldwin in 2010).

The Texas native explains he first fell in love with the banjo as a teenager.

“Folk music was very popular at the time, and there were a lot of banjos around. My ear just went to it, and I can’t explain why,” he says.

He finds the instrument moody, emotional, strong and showy.

“It can really drive a tune, especially an instrumental,” he says.

Martin’s connection with onetime New Bohemians singer Brickell (wife of pop singer Paul Simon) happened when the two met at a party two years ago. After chatting a while, the singer said she wanted to write music with the funnyman-turned-serious banjo player.

Because the two live on opposite coasts — Martin west and Brickell east — their songwriting recipe consisted of emailing digital files back and forth. Martin says he began the process by recording music on his banjo.

“And she would listen to it over and over and over until lyrics started coming to her. And sometimes it was so quick. I could write a song in a day and she would have the lyrics back in another day. And so all these songs would appear in my email.”

His collaboration with the Steep Canyon Rangers came after his agent said he needed a band to tour with.

“ I had met the Steep Canyon Rangers in North Carolina at a party, and they were the only band I knew, and the collaboration just worked out fantastically.”

Their partnership resulted in the 2011 album “Rare Bird Alert.” A live concert CD/DVD package of their performance — including Brickell — at the historic Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside, California, was released last fall.

Though music is his “thing” these days, Martin says there is a great deal of comedy in the show.

“I say it’s at least 40 percent comedy and 60 percent music. We banter back and forth,” he adds. “I don’t think the audience would appreciate it if I didn’t do much comedy.”

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell

8 p.m. Thursday

Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel

2901 Grand River, Detroit

Cover $45-$85

Call (313) 309-4700



Andrea Daniel is a freelance writer.

Steve Martin won a Grammy Award for his collaboration with Edie Brickell. ... (Steve Martin)