Steve Martin is accustomed to having hugely successful records. Way back in 1977, the legendary comedian and writer achieved bona fide rock-star status with his hugely popular live comedy album "Let's Get Small." Then the next year his follow-up, "Wild and Crazy Guy," went double platinum. The latter featured his signature tune "King Tut," which became the undisputed comedic anthem for the "Saturday Night Live" generation.
But throughout Martin's storied career he has only briefly hinted at his musical prowess. While performing both live and on record, small snippets of Martin's virtuosic banjo playing have snuck in, leading fans to wonder if it was all just part of the joke.
It's no joke.
Having started playing banjo at age 17, Martin has had a long-term love for the instrument that has run parallel with, yet in the shadows of, his high-profile film and television career, which has included hit movies like "The Jerk," "¡Three Amigos!" and "Parenthood." But now with the release of his second bluegrass album, "Rare Bird Alert," he has hit the road with the top-notch North Carolina string band the Steep Canyon Rangers, with whom Martin also cut the new record.
"The audience response has been so good and, believe me, I've been around for a long time," said Martin in a recent interview. "And I can tell when it's sincere or when it's perfunctory. And this does seem like a very sincere, genuine response."
Released last March, "Rare Bird Alert" features mostly Martin-penned originals, and along with the Rangers, features guest spots by the Dixie Chicks ("You") and the esteemed Sir Paul McCartney ("Best Love"). Not surprisingly, the album has topped the American bluegrass charts, a feat Martin first achieved with his 2009 album "The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo," which also earned him a Grammy.
It was only within the last several years though that banjo began to take on an increased prominence in Martin's creative life. With the easy accessibility of music on the Internet, he began to soak in the many modern masters of the instrument.
"I identified some players that were new that I'd never heard of," said Martin. "And I actually contacted them just to say, 'I really like your music.' And then people started sending me their music. And then I started meeting the people. And then I met some people. And then one of the players, Tony Trischka, asked me to play on his record."
The current leg of Martin's 2011 tour features performances throughout the West and South. For Martin and the band, the prime focus is the music.
But, as one might imagine, a Steve Martin performance wouldn't be complete without at least some of his signature humor, and several of his new tunes like "Jubilation Day" and "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" incorporate disarmingly blunt and hilarious observations and insights.
"Reviewers have said it's about two-thirds music and one-third comedy ... I'm guessing that some people who come have never heard of bluegrass music in their lives or wonder what it is," said Martin. "And, but you know, we get asked back to play places again ... It's complex. It involves musicianship. And so, people can appreciate it on that level-you know, even if they're not familiar with what's happening. It's like, you can go and watch Ravi Shankar play even if you're not familiar with ragas."
Additionally, Martin and the Rangers have worked up a bluegrass version of "King Tut" for the live show, which Martin said doesn't necessarily pop up at every performance. "I do it every once in a while," he said. "And I really put it on the record because I wanted the audience to know that our show was fun."
But for Martin, the core of his current performances is the five-stringed instrument that has beguiled him for decades. And as his banjo skills increasingly work their way into the world-class category, one could easily wonder what his ultimate legacy might actually prove to be.
Said Martin of the banjo, "Its range of emotion -- it can be completely joyful and it can be very, very emotional, which I do in my show. I make that point. I mean, not such verbally, but musically I make the point that it can be completely uplifting."
If you go:
What: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers in concert
Where: Pepsi Amphitheater at Fort Tuthill
When: Saturday, Aug. 20. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and show starts at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $50 for general admission and $76 and $86.50 for covered seating.
For More Informatiom: See www.stevemartin.com or call 214-6485.