Steve Martin: serious bluegrass
By Glenn Gamboa
Steve Martin laughs at the surprising twist his career has taken in the past five years.
“There’s a little phrase I repeat a lot,” says Martin, calling in between rehearsals of Shakespeare in the Park’s “As You Like It,” for which he composed a new score. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Martin, 66, is in the midst of his fourth full-time career — after writer, comedian and actor, all of which he continues to some extent. Martin is also a musician and he’s very much in demand.
In addition to composing bluegrass music for an 1840s version of “As You Like It,” which opened at the Delacorte Theater on June 5, Martin is touring with his group, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Martin also is working on an album of banjo tunes written with Edie Brickell that they plan to record. (“She is really at the top of her game,” Martin says of Brickell. “I’d send her a song, and she’d have lyrics for it the next day.”) That collaboration, hatched via email at the suggestion of Brickell’s husband, Paul Simon, will be called — wait for it — Steve and Edie.
Q. Was it more exciting for you to hear the Dixie Chicks sing your lyrics (on the song “You” for the recent “Rare Bird Alert” album) or to hear Claire Danes recite your lines in “Shopgirl”?
A. I’ve been in movies my whole life and music — well, five years ago, I was an outsider — so it’s still very thrilling to hear your music played in a very prestigious situation by people who make it sound good.
Q. You sound more at ease on “Rare Bird Alert,” and it seems like more of the Steve Martin comedy people know is in songs like “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” or “Jubilation Day.”
A. When I recorded “The Crow,” I had just been playing at home. I had never played with a band for more than one or two songs at a time. I was nervous about being onstage. ... I’m much more confident in my music and in my playing. I look at shows like, “Let me at ’em.”
Q. Has your experience as a stand-up comic helped you become more of a front man for the band?
A. When we started, I didn’t quite know what to do. I knew people would expect me to have some sort of funny patter, but I didn’t know what. Now I have it down. The show is serious bluegrass and funny introductions. ... It’s exciting to bring hard-core bluegrass to performing arts centers.
Q. Have you really stopped doing the bluegrass version of “King Tut” at your shows?
A. It proved to be unnecessary. We did it because we wanted people to know that it would be a fun show, and now people know that. The show is solid without it, so we just dropped it. We still have a good time.