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No joke: Steve Martin releases a banjo album

A comedian, actor, playwright, author, musician, art collector, juggler and magician, Martin’s latest feat is “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” his first full album of music.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Steve Martin has packed so much into his 63 years that it almost seems easier to mention what he hasn’t done instead of what he has.

A comedian, actor, playwright, author, musician, art collector, juggler and magician, Martin’s latest feat is “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” his first full album of music.

The disc is no joke. Martin wrote or co-wrote all 15 tracks, only one of which is overtly comedic.

A banjo picker since he was 17, he’s good enough to hold his own with masters like Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka, both of whom are guests on the album along with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen, a high school friend of his who also produced the record.

“I don’t know if people know I play. Only if they were around in the ’70s,” Martin said recently by phone. “I really haven’t played publicly for a long time.

“I started thinking, standing back from my banjo career and looking at it, it is weird. What if David Letterman picked up the violin and played like (bluegrass fiddler) Paul Warren. I think that would be a surprise.”

Although Martin has a reputation as a tough interview, on this afternoon he’s cordial and reflective. The one thing the superstar comedian is not is funny. He hardly cracks a joke.

“You can’t be up all the time. It would be very boring for people,” says Martin.

His interest in the banjo began in the ’60s after hearing Flatt & Scruggs’ seminal “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

‘I just loved the sound of it’He mostly taught himself to play from books and records (he’d slow the turntable way down to learn the parts). Later, while honing his comedy act in Los Angeles clubs like the Troubadour, he was inspired by the progressive bluegrass band the Dillards.

“It seemed impossible, but I just loved the sound of it,” recalls the Texas born, California raised-Martin.

While he never seriously considered a career in music — “I didn’t have enough confidence to play in a group on a stage,” he says — Martin did work the instrument into his stand-up bits like “Ramblin’ Man,” a parody of group sing-a-longs (check out YouTube to see him perform it on “The Muppets”).

He also started writing songs, some of which wound up on his 1970s comedy albums. “I just wrote them for the heck of it,” he says.

A couple of years ago, Trischka asked him to perform one of his compositions, “The Crow,” on Trischka’s album, “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.” The experience led to a revelation: “I realized I had enough tunes to do a solo album,” and he was off, using “The Crow” as the title track.

Most of the cuts are instrumentals, but Parton and Gill sing a duet on the country lilt “Pretty Flowers” and Martin sings the whimsical “Late for School.” Some of the songs date back to the late ’60s.

Doing better than his moviesReleased Jan. 27 as a three-month exclusive through, the record has received much better reviews than Martin’s latest movie, “Pink Panther 2,” panned by critics.

Martin seems pleased: “I’m used to bad review for movies because people like to attack them, but I’d be sad if the reviews were bad for this album.”

Indeed, as he discussed the CD, which will be released to other retailers later in the spring, he was relaxed and revealing. His answers became more clipped when asked about his career or his personal life (At one point, he asked warily whether the article would be about his music).

“It’s fresh to me,” he said about his music. “When you talk about movies you’re really talking about promotion. I think the interviewer is bored, and I’m bored because it’s the same old questions. I think it’s lost interest for the audience, too. They’re not that interested in the back story of how a movie got made.”

McEuen, whose Nitty Gritty Dirt Band provided the music to Martin’s late ’70s routine “King Tut,” had this to say of his friend: “The movie business is his business. This is his passion.”

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“In all the years I’ve known Steve, I don’t recall him acting this excited about anything,” added McEuen, who said Martin e-mailed him an hour after the album was available on — at 1 a.m. — to tell him it was at No. 190. “He really has three things in life that he loves: his wife, his banjo and his dog.”

Martin said he might put together a band and do a few concerts to support “The Crow,” but he doesn’t plan a full-blown tour. He’s got too much going on for that.

“I’ve exploited every possible facet of my abilities. Now I just want to continue doing what I’m doing,” he said.