by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
Mere mention of Steve Martin’s name instantly evokes a multitude of references to his iconic comedic work over the past five decades. But there’s so much more to the man than just a wild and crazy guy. Over the past five or so years, Martin has turned his focus toward music, working with both Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell. Last year, he and Brickell released their second duo album, ‘So Familiar,’ and set into motion a Broadway musical, ‘Bright Star: A New Musical’ — directed by Walter Bobbie and running now at the Cort Theatre.
Kelly McCartney: For this musical partnership with Edie to work, do both of you have to be super-conscious about carving out time from your myriad other commitments?
Steve Martin: No, because this is a focus of ours and I find … Together, we’ve written about 40 songs, between the musical and two albums — not to mention ones we discarded. [Laughs] Not that they were bad, but they were inappropriate for the musical. But, anyway, Edie loves to write songs. Just loves it. Everyone once in a while, I’ll just sit down and say, “I haven’t written a song for a while…” or just absent-mindedly be playing and start to come into a tune and I’ll send it off to her.
Because you’re so broadly creative with so many various interests, where do you find your melodic inspirations? Nature? Art? Life?
Well, sometimes it’s as simple as, “The last song I wrote was fast. I wonder if I can write something slow.” Or, “The last song I wrote was written in double-C tuning, let me try open-G tuning.” Or, “The last song was on the three-finger bluegrass banjo, let me try the baritone banjo.” You keep jumping around and you keep putting your fingers down in unusual places. [Laughs] And it creates music, often.
Do you lay the music down and have Edie bring the lyrics and melody? Or… what’s the division of duties between you two?
Yeah. Occasionally, she’ll follow my melody and, occasionally, she won’t. It can be all over the place. Or she might follow my melody for four bars then go off on her own or completely ignore it. Or, sometimes, a banjo tune has no melody. It’s just kind of a track, so anything can happen there.
What do you get from music, creatively, that you don’t get from the other aspects of your work?
One thing is, you can do it at home. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Fair enough!
Also, it’s open to interpretation by others because I think Edie and I both enjoy having our songs sung by such talented people, for example, as in the musical. We love to hear that the song actually translates to someone else’s voice and interpretation. We like that.
I would assume music’s universal appeal probably plays a part in that difference.
Yes. Also, it’s a little bit like writing a play, in that other people are going to do it. It’s very satisfying when you hear that it’s working and is coherent and logical and even emotional.
Does ‘Bright Star’ serve as a sort of convergence point for your various interests and paths? Or is it something different still?
No, it certainly does. It certainly converges in many ways — music, playwriting, humor…
Which, you’re known for that a little bit.
[Laughs] Yeah. A little bit. Also, collaboration. When I started in show business, I started as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Show and learned the collaborative process. Through my life, I’ve found what collaborating can do. There’s a certain part of me — and on certain things — that I don’t want to collaborate, so I go off and write a song on my own just to prove I can still do it. Or write a play completely without any other contributions. In the musical, there are definitely musical contributions and people are writing transitions and they are writing choral arrangements for the ensemble, so it’s a very collaborative process.
Coming from those days with the Smothers Brothers on down, what did you have to do for people to take you seriously as a musician — besides have some solid chops? How did you convince them?
It’s kind of a funny story. It’s not a funny story; it’s a long story. When I started doing my comedy act, which seemed so — in teen parlance — “random” … I could play the banjo and I would incorporate the banjo, even as the act was forming, just to show I could do something. Because it didn’t look like I was doing anything, comedically. It looked like I was goofing off. But that was an illusion. It was really well thought-out. But I had the banjo in there. I wouldn’t play it much — I played maybe a song-and-a-half or used it for some comedy — and I would always play a legitimate song.
So, when the time came for me to be serious about it. Which I was… I was always serious in the ’70s, too, and I recorded some songs on the back of a comedy album that I recorded in the ’70s. But, anyway, we’re talking now about, essentially, the year 2000 or maybe 1999 or so… I had been playing the banjo for almost 50 years. And I met up with the Steep Canyon Rangers. When we started doing the show, I would always incorporate humor into the show and they’re fantastic. And I always played my own songs. And, for some reason, there was no backlash. The bluegrass world was very welcoming. They were very nice and would share knowledge and contribute ideas. For some reason, I don’t know, there just didn’t seem to be a backlash and that’s been great. I like to think the tunes speak for themselves and the playing speaks for itself.
Even with having to overcome preconceived notions, when you do step on stage with Steep Canyon Rangers, that’s instant street cred, right there, with the bluegrass crowd.
Right. That’s true. Whenever we performed, I also tried to do a show and not just stand there with my back turned to the audience and play. I think a lot of people who… let’s say actors who want to become, who are musicians, their goal is to become a rock ‘n’ roll star, not a musician who is playing music. And I always thought, “No. We’re going to really play music here, as best we can.” I’d do some comedy in between, so it sort of greased the way for the audience.
So… banjos often get a bad rap. What is it about that particular instrument for you? As in, if you had to explain the merits and mirth of the banjo to someone, what would you say?
Well, I find the instrument to be very emotional. I find it capable of inducing melancholy and drama and, obviously, the excitement of tempo. It can be played fast or slow. And I think the reputation of the banjo has changed quite a bit. There were always banjo fans and banjo lovers, but during the ’70s, it got linked with… “hillbilly” is the wrong word, but kind of Hee-Haw, corn pone, hay bales, and all that.
Yes, that’s right. Although I always found that scene quite moving. I didn’t really find it bad for the banjo, but I guess other people did. But, even when the banjo was played in the 1940s by Earl Scruggs, they always wore suits and ties. They did not promote the image of corn pone. And, right now, you have players like Bela Fleck and Norm Pikelny and Ryan Cavanaugh. Bela Fleck can sit in with any jazz musician in the world and play in front of symphonies. He’s written concertos and performed them with orchestras. The capacity for the banjo is there.