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Steve Martin's Pickin' And Grinnin' His Way To Musical Success

of the Oakland Press

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Steve Martin has spent the past year and a half or so pickin’ and grinnin’ — and, thanks to the success of “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo,” is doing quite a bit of the latter.

Though best known as a comedian and actor, Martin has made a strong mark on the bluegrass and Americana music world with the 2009 album. The 16-song set spent 31 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart (it’s still at No. 4) and won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. It also netted a pair of trophies from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).

That’s enough to make him wild, crazy and very satisfied.

“I couldn’t be happier,” says Martin, 64, who certainly helped the album’s fortunes with “The Pink Panther 2” and with his co-starring turn with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in the hit comedy “It’s Complicated.”

“To go from my living room saying, ‘I think I’ll do an album’ to winning a Grammy is very exciting.

“And you have to remember it’s a banjo record, so it’s a little bit puzzling. I don’t think it’s selling on my name at this point. I think it’s selling on the music. I guess they just like the songs, which makes me proudest of all.”

The sight of the Waco, Texas-born Martin with a banjo is not strange to his fans, since he employed the instrument as part of his stand-up routines and TV appearances early in his career. He started playing when he was 17, turned onto the banjo by John McEuen, a high school friend in California who went on to be part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and also produce “The Crow.”

“He played and I just got interested and I practiced really hard,” Martin recalls. “And I was doing stand-up so I could take it on stage with me; that’s where I learned to play in front of people, and it’s sort of been a companion to me my whole life. It’s always something I had in the house.”

Martin calls his relationship to banjo “mystical” and even wrote an essay about it. “The first thing that attracted me to it is its speed, so I learned how to play fast,” he explains. “The next thing that attracted me was its melancholy, and that’s when I learned to play slow.”

He’s been songwriting for a while, too; five of the songs from “The Crow,” Martin says, date back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, including the instrumentals “Saga of the Old West,” “Hoedown at Alice’s,” “Freddie’s Lilt,” “Banana Banjo” and “Pitkin County Turn­around.” The album’s title, meanwhile, comes from a song he wrote and performed on Tony Trischka’s “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular” in 2007, while “Tin Roof” came along while he was filming 2003’s “Cheaper By the Dozen” and “Pretty Flowers” was conceived on the set of 2006’s “The Pink Panther” in Boston.

“I know what my specialty is — playing songs I write — and if I’m asked to step outside that specialty, I can get a little nervous,” Martin notes. “It’s a dichotomy; on one hand, I can play my own songs with anybody, but if I got into a really serious bluegrass crowd, I’d play a couple standards and retire.

“I didn’t even realize I was writing an album. I was just writing some songs, and I was up to speed ’cause I sort of got back into the banjo in the last three years. And I thought ‘Now it’s time ...’ ”

“The Crow” also features guest appearances by Trischka, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Mary Black, Earl Scruggs and others, and Martin says he’s been welcomed warmly into the various musical communities where banjo is a fixture.

“I deeply believe in this music and the musicians,” Martin says. “I’m so impressed by the musicians I run into. I don’t think the world, especially the United States, knows what kind of talent is out there in the world of bluegrass.

“They’ve been very kind and they seem appreciative that the music is ... reaching an audience that the bluegrass world doesn’t usually reach.”

“The Crow” has allowed Martin to get back on the road, mixing his music with a bit of comedy. He and his Steep Canyon Rangers have also been previewing new songs that are targeted for Martin’s next album — including titles such as “Ignition,” “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” and an instrumental called “Hide Behind a Rock.” “Jubilation Day,” which he says is a possible title track for the album, is “about what else — a break-up,” while “The Atheist Song” is “a gospel tune for atheists.”

“I have 11 songs, and I think we need 12 or 13 — and I’m very happy with them,” says Martin, who plans to hit the studio in August with Trischka producing for an early 2011 release.

“We’re going to be a little more bluegrass this time. That first album had a lot of musicians playing in different cities. We’re gonna try to economize on it a little bit.”

Music isn’t completely taking over Martin’s world; even during his tour, which kicks off Monday night at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, he’ll be flying back and forth to Vancouver, where he’s filming “The Big Year,” an adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book about bird watching, with Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

But he does plan to keep the banjo in his hands and keep the music an active part of his creative life.

“Someone said to me, ‘You know why this has been so great for you, Steve? It allows you go to go into a situation where you’re not the star,’ ” he recalls.

“And that’s absolutely right. I go into a room in other situations and I kind of have a little ... whatever. But in bluegrass I’m like the 10th best player in the room, which is refreshing.”

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 8 p.m. Monday, April 19, at Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $25-70. Call 313-576-5111 or visit www.detroitsymphony.com.

Web Site: www.detroitsymphony.com

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