Steve Martin releases crisp, but kooky bluegrass album
During more than a half-century as an artist and entertainer, Steve Martin has consistently pushed and prodded at the boundaries of many an art form. And he’s doing it again with “The Long-Awaited Album,” his fifth collection of original music in the last eight years.
Take the new album’s lilting country waltz “Nights in the Lab,” an ode to the love that blooms between “two biologists … who process biogenesis and stare into a petri dish.” Or “Caroline,” a comic yarn about a guy abandoned in a parking structure set to a melody that has little regard for traditional rhythm or meter.
“That’s the aspect that gets overlooked or underrated,” said multiple Grammy-winning producer Peter Asher, who produced “The Long-Awaited Album.”
“When you look at this album and see how good the songs are — he wrote every song,” Asher said. “He comes up with these brilliant little melodies and instrumentals written on the banjo, which is quite unusual. It could be seen as constricting in the way it works, because you have a drone string and all that kind of stuff, so you write in a certain way.”
But Martin has never let the parameters of a particular instrument, or field of endeavor, impede his vision of how it might work to his artistic advantage.
As a stand-up comic, he was the first to bring the format to sports arenas and stadiums, generating ovations worthy of a rock star and collecting two Grammys for his albums.
As an actor and filmmaker, he traveled a path from the ridiculous to the sublime when he made his big-screen debut in 1979 as “The Jerk,” a Jerry Lewis-like slapstick piece in which his clueless character blithely confessed, “I was born a poor black child,” and then followed that with a starring role in the surreal and elegant Dennis Potter musical “Pennies From Heaven.”
Long before finding fame, he tested other societal expectations: In the early 1960s, when gender roles were still fairly traditional, he was a cheerleader at Garden Grove High School.
He’s kept the same modus operandi since allocating serious time to his lifelong passion for the banjo, the endeavor that has added three more Grammys to his mantelpiece and paved the way to a Broadway musical, “Bright Star.”
“It’s a little weird,” Martin, 72, said with a bona fide tone of surprise in his voice over lunch recently at one of his favorite Beverly Hills restaurants. “But when you think about it, everything I’ve done really came from one of two things: the love of comedy and the banjo. Even the writing comes from love of comedy — that’s like, ‘What if, what if? Oh, I’m in the movies now? Maybe I can write something!’
“It’s not as diverse as it looks,’ he said, reflecting on a multifaceted career that’s also included books of his comedy prose, short stories, one-act plays and other writings. “It all feels like it’s coming from the same things.”
The latest example is “The Long-Awaited Album.”
Starting with “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” in 2009, which earned him — no joke — the bluegrass album of the year Grammy Award, he’s since released “Rare Bird Alert” in 2011, for which he was joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers bluegrass band, and a pair of albums for which he collaborated with singer-songwriter Edie Brickell: “Love Has Come For You” in 2013 and “So Familiar” two years later.
That teaming with Brickell blossomed into “Bright Star,” which was nominated for new musical at the June 2016 Tony Awards — a year that also saw the arrival of “Hamilton.”
Yet Martin displayed no evidence of disappointment, saying, “The best result to me were the songs. We have two albums of songs, including songs we wrote that are in the show, and some that were taken out, but which are still on the records.”
The other high point for him, he said, was “the discovery of talent. Finding Carmen Cusack,” the “Bright Star” actress who earned a Tony nomination for performance by a lead actress in a musical. She’ll be in the production coming to the Ahmanson Theatre that’s slated to open Oct. 11.
He and Brickell still make tweaks to the show, and Martin is also readying another play heading to Broadway, “Meteor Shower,” starring Amy Schumer and “Key & Peele’s” Keegan-Michael Key. (“Perfect casting,” he said. “They’re perfect.”)
But at the moment, his attention is squarely on “The Long-Awaited Album,” which reunites him with the Steep Canyon Rangers and will be released Friday.
Amid his marriage in 2007 to journalist Anne Stringfield, the birth of their daughter four years ago, development of recent plays and the flood of songs he’s written, Martin is riding a burst of creative energy.
More than just showcasing his agility on the banjo, which he often employed as a prop in his stand-up days, without making the instrument the butt of jokes, the new album underscores his evolution as a songwriter, the aspect of music-making he appears to value most.
“I’ve written now, I think, about 100 songs,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when I thought about it.
“I now listen to pop songs much more closely to hear how they do it, and I am so impressed. I really am,” he said. “I was listening on the way over here to Rod Stewart swing ‘You’re in My Heart,’ just listening to it as a pop song. The lyrics are great, and every line is what you would think if you were that person. The way the chorus goes, the way it changes key and goes into this other mode. It’s just a great pop song.”
He’s exceedingly self-deprecating about his instrumental acuity, bowing before the extraordinary level of musicianship typical of bluegrass.
“I’m good, but I’ve sort of developed my own style,” he said. “I don’t have the time to rehearse 12 hours a day like these guys do, and they become virtuosos.
“In fact, when I first came into folk music in the ’60s, the level of banjo-playing was here,” he said, raising his hand to eye level. “It was good, it was solid. When I came back in around 2000, the level was here,” stretching his hand as high over his head as possible without dislodging his shoulder. “The average player is incredible. That’s why I started the prize.”
He’s referring to the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo, an annual award he initiated in 2010, and which has gone to esteemed players including the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens and the Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny.
“They’re like classical musicians, but no one (outside bluegrass circles) knows it,” Martin says.
That hasn’t hampered what he’s attempting to do as a songwriter, however.
“I feel like it has expanded,” he said. “Sometimes the greatest asset to creativity is not knowing anything. You don’t know you’re not supposed to do X.”
Case in point: the new album’s “Bad Night,” a surprisingly touching song given its subject matter. In the song, a rejected suitor struggles to write about a failed romantic encounter: “On my porch, tune my guitar/Look for rhymes that don’t get far/So sorry that you shut me out/Now what’s this song about?”
“He comes up with amazingly cool melodies — and often,” said Asher, who also produced the albums Martin worked on with Brickell. “Very rarely do I go over to his house, or go to lunch or dinner, when he doesn’t say, ‘Hey, I came up with this last night, have a listen,’ and he’s come up with a new, really cool melodic idea.”
Martin’s greatest dream? To hear his songs interpreted by other musicians.
“That would make me the most proud,” he said with a broad smile that belies the rap he sometimes gets as being a difficult interview subject. “I would love it. Some of my lyrics are rapid-fire, and I think that’s always inhibiting for people. It’s good for records, but not that good for live.”
To date, he said he’s encountered nothing but kindness and enthusiasm from bluegrass, folk and country audiences.
“When I first started doing it, I didn’t have a concern about being accepted because I was dealing with a small audience anyway: bluegrass,” Martin said. “I had some concerns because these guys really love their music. If I hadn’t been playing banjo for 50 years, I probably would feel more nervous about it.”
And that points the way to his next ambition: singing. Martin shows off a sweetly resonant tenor on a couple of songs on “The Long-Awaited Album,” including the made-for-Dr. Demento holiday song “Strangest Christmas Yet” and “Caroline.”
He’s more and more lending his voice to the mix when he tours with the Rangers, which he’ll be doing this fall.
“I have learned being on the road now for a while that I’m much more comfortable singing: backing other people up, adding a harmony part here or there. Slowly, incrementally, it’s getting better,” he said. “If I could live another 50 years, eventually I would be very good.”