Steve Martin is serious about his banjo.
Throughout the ’70s, while building his reputation as a stand-up comedian and frequent guest on “Saturday Night Live,” the banjo was often on hand, serving as a prop and transition between jokes.
The release of “The Jerk” in 1979, however, effectively put Martin’s banjo-playing career on hiatus.
For the next 20 years, the acclaimed actor and comedian kept his focus on Hollywood, building his legend through films such as “Three Amigos,” “Roxanne,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Parenthood.”
By the turn of the century, Martin was among film’s most in-demand stars, churning out family favorites including “Father of the Bride.” It thus caught many fans off-guard when he picked up his banjo in 2001 to join the late Earl Scruggs on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for the bluegrass legend’s Grammy-winning “Earl Scruggs and Friends” release.
At that point, Martin had three Grammys to his name, including two for the late ’70s comedy albums “Let’s Get Small” and “A Wild and Crazy Guy,” but no Academy Awards for his acting.
Although he has continued to act in the past decade, including two “Pink Panther” films, Martin has largely refocused his energy toward music, just as he transitioned from stand-up to film 30 years ago.
Meeting the band
About five years ago, Steep Canyon Rangers guitarist and singer Woody Platt received a phone call that Steve Martin was in Brevard, N.C., and looking for a few musicians to pick some tunes with.
At the time, the Steep Canyon Rangers had built a strong following through original bluegrass songs played in a traditional gather-round-the-mic manner, complete with rich harmonies and a penchant for donning sharp attire on stage.
Platt quickly rounded up his band and headed over for an informal jam session. They made music for an evening and kept in contact, inviting Martin back to town to play with Steep Canyon Rangers at Brevard’s annual Mountain Song Festival in September.
“We clicked immediately,” Platt recalls, on the phone with Charleston Scene the morning before heading to Philadelphia to kick off this month’s tour with Martin and singer Edie Brickell.
“It turned out that Steve wanted to do some touring, and we got the call to be the band. He said we were the only band that he knew.”
Even Platt could not have expected the success that Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin have enjoyed together ever since.
“I didn’t realize that it would be the beginning of years of touring together,” Platt said. “I just thought we were meeting a movie star and playing some music, and the next you know, we’re 200 shows into it.”
Martin began his career as a recording musician with a bang. Eight years after winning his Grammy with Scruggs, Martin released “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.” The 2009 album of original songs, mostly instrumentals, composed by Martin featured Scruggs, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Tim O’Brien and Tony Trischka.
For producer duties, Martin called on John McEuen, the celebrated banjo player of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As a budding comedian, Martin often opened for the Dirt Band, even recruiting them for his hit parody song “King Tut” in 1978.
“The Crow” earned Martin his fourth Grammy, garnering the accolade of Best Bluegrass Album and securing his new status as a professional musician.
Martin solidified his relationship with Steep Canyon Rangers with the release of “Rare Bird Alert” in 2011, their co-billed album that also garnered a Best Bluegrass Album nomination.
That collection included more singing tracks than “The Crow,” incorporating Martin as a band member within a group that shared songwriting duties and lead vocals. One standout track is “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” an a cappella song in the tradition of a spiritual vocal round, but with lyrics like “In their songs, they have a rule/The ‘he’ is always lowercase.”
“Steve emailed that song to me; just him singing through the lyrics; and somewhere in Texas, Graham (Sharp, of Steep Canyon Rangers ) and I sat in a hotel room and worked out the musical part of the melody,” Platt explains. “A cappella music is something we’ve enjoyed with Steep Canyon Rangers, and so it’s fun to do that song with Steve. It’s a nice change of pace.”
Although Steep Canyon Rangers claim co-writing credits on several tracks from “Rare Bird,” Platt said that most of the shared material, both musical and lyrical, comes from Martin.
“He’s supremely creative,” Platt said of the bandleader, citing Martin’s history as a best-selling novelist, as well. “He’s good at so many things. His drive to put on a great show is impressive. To watch someone entertain an audience and be as natural as he is on stage; we’ve all learned a lot from that.”
On the road, Martin often rides on the bus with his band, and they find time to practice daily in between concerts.
“You’d think that after 10 shows we might just be able to go out and wing it, but we rehearse aggressively,” Platt said. “That’s something I really respect, and it’s probably been his approach to his whole career. We’re always playing, on the bus and backstage.”
Bringing in Edie
In April, Martin released his latest project, “Love Has Come for You,” an album of songs written and recorded with Edie Brickell, best-known for her ’80s hit song “What I Am” and her marriage to Paul Simon. Many of the songs, including the opening track, “When You Get to Asheville,” feature the Steep Canyon Rangers, and reflect the growing ties between Martin and Western North Carolina.
On their tour together, Platt expects that the Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin will open the first set before an intermission and a second set with Brickell.
“It’s going to be very fresh and new to us,” Platt said, emphasizing that Charleston is one of the first stops on the tour. “There’s something about a fresh show and the excitement and energy that comes with it. I think the audience will feel our enjoyment of what we’re doing.”
Monday’s concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center also marks the Steep Canyon Rangers ’ first appearance in Charleston with Martin, although they’ve played at The Pour House, Awendaw Green and other area venues countless times in the past decade.
“We really haven’t done a Southeast tour with Steve until now,” Platt said. “I hope our longtime fans will check this out; we’re featured quite often in the show and get a song or two of our own, so it’s not like we’re just standing off in the shadows.”
From a critical perspective, the caliber of the line-up was raised another notch in February when the Steep Canyon Rangers won their own Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for last year’s “Nobody Knows You.”
“That was a very pleasant surprise,” Platt admits. “Getting nominated was one thing — that alone was pretty amazing — but winning was just shocking for us. We had done a lot on our own as a band, and then Steve really helped broaden the scope of people that were aware of the Steep Canyon Rangers. We were nominated with him for “Rare Bird,” and that was such an honor, but to do it on our own? It’s like a sweet reward for all the hard work.”
For fans of Martin’s work as an actor, it may seem like hitting the road with “The Jerk” or Martin’s character Ruprecht from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” would be a constant laugh-fest. And fortunately, Martin does garner some hearty chuckles during his show.
The handwritten “Things I Learned on This Year’s Banjo Tour” that Martin posted to his website speaks to the atmosphere on tour, with notes such as “When somebody else is singing onstage, mouthing the words to a totally different song is soooo worth it,” and “Crowd surfing went great (except for lady on ventilator).”
He’s also released a list of new song ideas on his site, with titles including “Coal Miner’s Lobbyist,” “Smoky Mountain Peanut Allergies” and “My, That Dress is Unflatterin’.”
Still, Martin’s critical success as a bluegrass musician has demonstrated that he’s not simply a big star relying on his name or his humor to try out a new direction in life.
“Steve is quiet. It’s not like he’s always in character as a comedian,” explains Platt. “People ask us, ‘Is he just funny all the time?’ The truth is, he’s incredibly funny, but at the same time, he’s very serious about the music.”