has been playing the banjo his entire life—from before he started as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, before he became his generation’s brightest stand-up comedian, before he started writing and acting in movies, before he penned his first novel or play. It’s always been the banjo, which makes his most recent phase as a touring bluegrass musician all the more rewarding: In some ways, all the comedy, the writing, and the performing have led to this moment.
Last month, Martin and his sometime backing band, Steep Canyon Rangers, released their second record together, The Long-Awaited Album, an LP brimming with masterful bluegrass instrumentation and Martin’s unique lyrical sensibility. A week later, Martin and the Rangers visited Paste Studio in New York for an exclusive three-song performance.
Between songs, Martin revealed a bit about how the songs on The Long-Awaited Album came together. “I come to them mostly with a song, with the lyrics,” he said of the Rangers, who have recorded nine albums of their own since 2001. “These guys really help me develop it—they help work out the chords, the help work out the dynamics, and we work together, very close.”
After opening with the breakneck instrumental “Office Supplies,” Martin described the evolution of his banjo playing, which fluctuates between two predominant styles: three-finger (aka Scruggs style) and clawhammer. “The three-finger style is credited to Earl Scruggs, and that’s that sort of bluegrass, hard-driving, fast-picking—that I just played, actually,” he said. “And then clawhammer is played only with the backs of the fingernails, with no picks, and to me it’s a more emotional, melancholy type of sound—although you can get it from both styles, so that’s why I wanted to learn both when I was young.”
Asked what drives him to create the art he does at any given time—be it prose, comedy, film, theater, or music—Martin explained that it all comes from the same place, more or less. “I think it’s just the love of an idea,” he said. “It’s like, Oh, I’d like to express this idea. But it’s not my idea. It might be I’d like to express what it’s like, you know, when a couple breaks up. I’d like to express a man with a long nose, based on Cyrano de Bergerac. And then it just takes the form of whatever’s it’s supposed to be.”
For his next phase, Martin will return to the stage as a writer with the play “Meteor Shower,” set for a November opening on Broadway, and starring Amy Schumer, Keegan-Michael Key, Laura Benanti and Alan Tudyk. As for his work with Steep Canyon Rangers, “we’ve got a few songs cooking, but right now we’re focused on this.”
Watch Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers’ Paste Studio Session below, and read our recent feature story on Martin here.