The banjo was always part of Steve Martin's comedy routine. The image of Martin in a white suit with a fake arrow through his head playing the banjo is one of the iconic images of the 1970s. However, Martin wasn't joking when it came to his love of the instrument.
If there was any doubt, Martin's album "Rare Bird Alert" with the Steep Canyon Rangers should put it to rest. It's Martin's second all-music album aimed at the bluegrass market - and it has been another success.
As a teenager, Martin encountered the banjo through the music of the Kingston Trio and, more notably, Flatt and Scruggs. He loved it. It was Earl Scruggs' influential style that Martin and thousands of other banjo players tried most to emulate.
In a group telephone interview, Martin says through his years of success in stand-up comedy and filmmaking, he lost track of the bluegrass music.
"Well, you know, it was hard to keep up until the Internet," says Martin. "When the Internet came along it meant that you could suddenly find bluegrass records. And also with satellite radio you could get bluegrass stations and you could suddenly get radio stations from across the country in your home, so to speak. It opened a whole new world for me. Because I could hear (it). If I went to a record store I didn't even know what was good or what was bad. Suddenly, I was able to hear it on the radio."
"And I could randomly buy records of banjo players on Amazon or iTunes. ... I started to hear music again that I really, really loved. And that really just got me back into it again.
Martin was nudged back into serious playing in 2001 when he was invited to play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with Scruggs and other music stars on the "Earl Scruggs and Friends" album.
Martin began to talk about musicians he liked in interviews and some of those musicians contacted him.
"That really opened the doors for me again," he says.
And picking up the banjo led to writing songs.
"It was later that I got back into songwriting," says Martin. "Because I got back into the banjo in a more serious way I got back to the songwriting by default. Because that was always my way. You know, whenever I picked up the banjo in a serious way I always went to songwriting."
Both new and old songs ended up on Martin's 2009 album, "The Crow." For the project, he enlisted a number of instrumental and vocal greats, including Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Scruggs and Tim O'Brien. When it came time to perform music from the album for audiences, Martin enlisted the young group the Steep Canyon Rangers, a group that was becoming the talk of acoustic music circles. Martin enjoyed the music marriage so much that he worked with the band on "Rare Bird Alert" and took the act on tour.
In the liner notes to "Rare Bird Alert," Martin says he actually began to enjoy touring - something he had "grown to loathe" as a comedian. Part of that was due to touring with the Rangers.
"We get along just great despite our age differences. I am in my mid-60s, and they are in their late 70s."
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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