Steve Martin has never been one for convention. As a comedian coming up in the 1960s, he toyed with his audiences, subverting jokes by injecting them with unbearable tension and strange non-sequiturs rather than the easy release of a punchline. The brand of anti-comedy that Martin helped pioneer rarely comes with the surface delights of bunny ears or juggling tricks or an arrow through the head, but he was able to package the absurd with the philosophical to fill arenas in the late 1970s before abruptly walking away from stand-up comedy in 1981. As he wrote in his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up, “I was not naturally talented—I didn’t sing, dance, or act—though working around that minor detail made me inventive.”
Three careers later, having found similar success in film acting and fiction writing, Martin now brings that style of accessible yet challenging performance to his ever-expanding life in music, poking at the boundaries of tradition to give people what they didn’t realize they wanted.
When Martin and the North Carolina-based band Steep Canyon Rangers convened to record their new album, The Long-Awaited Album, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that the project would be rooted in bluegrass, with plenty of banjo playing. Martin and the Rangers earned a Grammy nomination in 2011 for their first collaboration, Rare Bird Alert, and Martin showcased his evolving picking style on two subsequent albums with Edie Brickell, as well as the 2016 Tony-nominated Broadway musical Bright Star, based on the duo’s music.
But one listen to The Long-Awaited Album opener “Sante Fe,” with its flurry of mariachi trumpets, makes it evident that he isn’t going to stand on ceremony or rest on traditions. Putting horns on a bluegrass song has historically been a no-no, but with the help of producer Peter Asher—best known for recording albums by Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Neil Diamond—Martin was moved once again to bend the rules.
Asher had worked with mariachi players while producing records for Ronstadt. “Luckily, I still had all my mariachi phone numbers so I was able to make the call and get two great L.A. mariachi trumpet players, who totally loved the song and got into the spirit of it and played along,” he says. “We liked the freedom to experiment a bit.”
Martin began writing “Santa Fe” about five years ago, and when he revisited it he realized it would sound better with the trumpets. He had spent some time living in the New Mexico capital, where he heard plenty of mariachi music, so the sound was dear to him. “What could be more appropriate if you’re writing a song about Santa Fe than to have those joyful horns be on there?” he says.
“As the years have gone on, I’ve been more of a writer and have paid a lot of attention to storytelling, and am always looking for experience in it. I do feel comfortable telling stories in a three-minute song.”
Martin points out that in recent years, “bluegrass’s role has become much more open to experiments,” but also noted that he and the Rangers included a version of “Santa Fe” without the trumpets for the “hardcore bluegrass stations,” just in case.
But he is adamant that there is ample room for innovation in bluegrass—which traces its history to the roots of Appalachian string music and early American jazz—as well as with the banjo itself.
“It’s become an extremely sophisticated instrument thanks to players like Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny and Tony Trischka,” he says. “Bela Fleck’s writing concertos for the banjo to be played with an orchestra. So the banjo is in a different place. It’s getting the word out that’s a little difficult, because it’s complex. The banjo is very complex, especially when played three-fingered. Clawhammer is generally more melodic and accessible for a lot of people.”
Martin, who turned 72 in August, has developed his versatility on the banjo over an adulthood of playing, not least when he made it a central character in his old stand-up act with strange ditties like “Dueling Banjos for One Banjo.” His first all-music solo album, 2009’s The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Performance. Even still, when he first teamed with the Steep Canyon Rangers about nine years ago, “he was just getting comfortable with performing,” says Steep Canyon Rangers guitarist Woody Platt, who also sings on some of the new songs.
Watch an Unknown Steve Martin Play Banjo With Glen Campbell in 1969.
“Steve’s confidence has [gone] up tremendously,” says Platt. “And his creativity and songwriting and his versatility to switch back and forth from a clawhammer style, which is a more old-time banjo style, to a three-finger, more of a Scruggs style, is really wonderful. You don’t see a lot of banjo players that play both styles so well.”
Three-finger picking, most common in bluegrass, involves down-picking with the thumb and up-picking with the middle and forefingers; typically it’s best for playing in a group, as it offers the ability to move a song’s melody around. Clawhammer involves all down-picking and strumming, and allows a combination of rhythm and soloing on top. Martin said he tends to prefer clawhammer, since it can stand strong solo and he can produce an orchestral sound no matter how many musicians he’s playing with.
“You can really get emotions out of it,” he says. “I like the emotion of clawhammer, and the tunings are more modal. When I pick up the banjo to write a song, I usually pick up the clawhammer banjo.”
Steve Martin, center, with The Steep Canyon Rangers.
Regardless of which he chooses, Martin is always searching for new things to try on the instrument, something Asher has witnessed many times: “His composing just gets more inventive. Almost every time I go over to his house, he’ll say ‘I’ve worked on this new thing, listen to this.’ And he’ll have these great new licks. He’ll figure out some different kind of fingering or whatever and come up with something new. Considering people our age are supposed to be settling in, he’s just extraordinarily inventive and creative.”
When Martin pitched Asher the new album, Asher asked if it would be a straight bluegrass album, to which Martin responded: “No, but yes in a way.”
“No in the sense that we decided to allow ourselves to tweak it a little,” Asher says, “to add some instruments here or there or approach it more in a way that’s not really a pop record exactly, but not specifically a purist bluegrass record.”
Every song on The Long-Awaited Album, which will be released Friday on Rounder Records, is credited to both Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers, and it’s clear that many of the musical garnishes—the outsize bass and drums on “All Night Long,” the racing mandolins and fiddles on “Office Supplies,” the shifting tempos of “Bad Night”—come courtesy of the deeply versatile Steep Canyon Rangers. But the album really stands apart from the bluegrass of yore thanks to Martin’s predictably inventive and vivid lyrics. As in his fiction writing, he makes comedy from heartbreak and drama from folly in his songs. The common thread is a love story.
“The initial love, the overwhelming feelings, the feeling of walking on air,” he says. “Those traditionally have been what songs have been about love, is that initial flush of joy.”
On the swaying “Nights in the Lab,” he sings, “We are two biologists / in the lab we coexist / we process biogenesis / and stare into a petri dish.” On “Caroline,” he takes the part of a jilted lover: “If you ever find another please don’t put a post on Facebook / I would rather think I was a deep regret you can’t resolve / If I have a drink with someone I will tell her all about you / That will be the big mistake that will make on my first date with Caroline.”
“When you’re in pain you can still laugh,” he says. “Sometimes, like in ‘Caroline,’ what the singer is expressing is quite painful, but the lyrics are constructed as to be sweet and funny. I love that quality when you can be actually joyful in a song that’s describing something painful, because it really expresses the ongoing joy of life even when you’re down and out.”
There’s even a Christmas song, “Strangest Christmas Yet,” with Martin complaining, “Then came time for photographs, the camera set to strobe / And I said to Uncle Bob, ‘you wanna close your robe?”’
Martin’s unvarnished tenor is immediately recognizable, and all the more evocative for its joyful commitment to the words he’s singing—that is, the story. Whatever comfort he once found in discomfort as a genre-bending stand-up comedian, he now finds in the simple pains and pleasures that we all encounter in our own adventures.
“As the years have gone on,” he says, “I’ve been more of a writer and have paid a lot of attention to storytelling, and am always looking for experience in it. I do feel comfortable telling stories in a three-minute song.”