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Steve Martin is known for his verbal dexterity in stand-up and comedy films, but his musicianship proves just as deft when he gives a virtuoso display of bluegrass pickin'.
Chris Pizzello STF
Steve Martin is known for his verbal dexterity in stand-up and comedy films, but his musicianship proves just as deft when he gives a virtuoso display of bluegrass pickin'.

Steve Martin: Rare Bird Alert

Steve Martin's latest bluegrass album is a richly textured, warm compilation of instrumentals and songs filled with - as befits a man first known as a comedian - intelligence, love and humour.

(Rounder Records)

When I saw Steve Martin live in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, “Let’s get small” and “Excuuuuuuuse me” were catchphrases. He was a regular on Saturday Night Live and his comedy, which relied on intelligent juxtaposition and absurdist observation – with some physicality thrown in – hid a major talent. Many comics play behind props – Martin himself often wore an arrow through the head or Groucho glasses, or juggled – but when on Let’s Get Small, Martin says, “And now, some Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, before launching into the Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass hit, the audience laughs before realising it is no joke. The guy can really play banjo.

There are essentially two types of banjo playing today. One is a three-finger pick that was used to such good effect by Earl Scruggs it became known after him. The other goes by two names: frailing, or the clawhammer. This is the kind of playing Martin prefers. On his first album, The Crow, which won a Grammy for best bluegrass album in 2010, there’s even a medley called Clawhammer, a trek across several musical locales, including the Scottish Loch Lomond. Clawhammer, by the way, is a somewhat misleading name for this style: when you see Martin playing, it is with such delicacy it’s like he’s tickling the strings.

You can hear that tickling in the instrumentals and solos on Martin’s latest bluegrass offering, Rare Bird Alert, particularly Yellow-Backed Fly, where Martin’s picking is as light as a flyfisherman’s cast. Only five of the 13 original songs on Rare Bird Alert are instrumentals (he’s backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers, who colour the songs with deep, rich textures), but Martin’s banjo stands out on the others as well. In Best Love, with vocals by Paul McCartney, the circular chording of the banjo acts as both support and parallel to lyrics that recount the story of a late-in-life love; in Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back, the conflict in the words – on how hard it is to end a long relationship – is echoed in the stops, rests and abrupt restarts of plucked eighth and sixteenth notes.

As befits an artist known predominantly as a comedian, Rare Bird Alert has humour to kill, which is an often overlooked characteristic of the country and bluegrass genres. Some of it is in the lyrics – in the break-up song Jubilation Day, the narrator says, “Let’s always remember the good times; like when you were out of town”; and in just about every line of the gospel-flavoured a cappella Atheists Don’t Have No Songs and the bluegrass reworking of King Tut – but there’s musical humour as well: “There’s magic in three-quarter time” goes a lyric in Women Like to Slow Dance but the song is a heel-kickin’ double-time.

The best tune on the album just might be You, a song of mourning, with vocal turns by the Dixie Chicks. No one in country can do a minor key quite like Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. The lyrics feel true and heartfelt, the instrumentation warm and not sentimental.

Now hear this: Three albums that have informed Steve Martin’s latest bluegrass offering

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Outbound

The multi-Grammy Award winner has played with such a range of artists, it’s easy to forget he’s a bluegrass musician at heart. Check out his version of Aaron Copland’s Hoedown, from 2000’s Outbound, which is labelled a jazz album.

Earl Scruggs – Earl Scruggs and Friends

Scruggs began his career pickin’ for Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, but quickly partnered with Lester Flatt. Their Foggy Mountain Breakdown is the urtext of banjo picking and gets a multi-artist revisitation on this Grammy Award winner from 2002.

Steve Martin – The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo

This 2009 album won the Grammy for bluegrass recordings in 2010. Or, as Martin put it: “I walked away with a Grammy, but later discovered I’d actually won it.” The album is largely instrumental with a couple of vocal turns by Mary Black and Dolly Parton, and as would be expected from someone who broke into showbiz as a comedian, a fair bit of whimsy.

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