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Steve Martin's pickin' keeps fans grinnin', too

for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

He's an award-winning actor, comedian and writer.

But these days Steve Martin is wild and crazy about another pursuit -- music and, specifically, bluegrass, with a pair of chart-topping albums and a Grammy Award to show for it.

"Y'know, it's feeling like my career," Martin, 66, says with a laugh. "And I like that it uses a different part of my brain. But I'm still doing the comedy thing because I'm doing it on stage, with the band. That has grown, too, and become more sophisticated and more enjoyable as it gets tighter.

"So that's very nice, too."

Music is nothing new for Martin. He learned to play banjo as a teenager, getting help from friend John McEuen, who went on to join the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Martin had a million-selling Top 20 single with the comedy song "King Tut" in 1978, and he played on Earl Scruggs` 2001 version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

But bluegrass has really kept Martin busy since the 2009 release of his first all-music album "The Crow: New Songs For the 5-String Banjo." Produced by McEuen, it hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Bluegrass Albums chart and won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass album. It also earned Martin an invitation to play at the Grand Ole Opry.

Its follow-up, 2011's "Rare Bird Alert," also hit No. 1 on the Bluegrass chart and scored another Grammy nomination, while Martin was named the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2011 Entertainer of the Year.

"It's been a great thing. I'm surprised at how quickly I've been welcomed and able to become another member of the bluegrass community," says the Texas-born Martin. And while he acknowledges that bluegrass has certainly benefited from his involvement as an artist, the genre "has a lot of great things happening that are not related to me.

"Look at the Punch Brothers and the Steep Canyon Rangers (Martin's backing band); they're acts that, on their own, are drawing twice as many people as they used to. And Chris Thile (of the Punch Brothers) is out doing mandolin with 'The Ghost Rodeo Sessions' and Yo-Yo Ma. I just saw Bela Fleck play with the Marcus Robert Trio; that was unbelievably staggering.

"So these bluegrass instruments are just expanding their influence in all sorts of ways, to the point where they're not going to be bluegrass instruments, they're just going to be instruments. A lot of significant things are happening."

Martin, meanwhile, has brought a different brand of comedy into bluegrass, both through songs such as "Jubilation Day" and "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" and schtick that he performs as part of his concerts with the Steep Canyon Rangers, which he says is considerably different than his regular stand-up act.

"It's not constant comedy," Martin explains. "I think of it as funny comedy and serious music. 'Funny comedy' is a redundancy, I know, but we take the music very seriously, and we recognize that because of what I've done before I couldn't get away with it if I didn't do comedy somehow.

"I guess I've always been a showman. I don't want to stand there and play one song after another after another. So the audiences that come leave having seen a real show. I really like doing that, and I think the group enjoys it, too. It's matured in a really nice way since we started."

And Martin says there's more where that's coming from. He and the Steep Canyon Rangers have enough new material for a third album, which they'll likely record next year. "We're constantly working on things," Martin says, and some of the songs -- including "Auden's Train," an adaptation of W.H. Auden's poem "Calypso" and a murder ballad-- have already been incorporated into the show.

Meanwhile, Martin is in the midst of making an album with Edie Brickell, formerly of the New Bohemians and currently of the Gaddabouts, and also Paul Simon's wife. The project, in fact, was hatched during Simon's 70th birthday party last October.

"We were just talking," Martin recalls. "I told her I have some tunes that are just laying around, and she said, 'Send them to me.' So we got together and played a tune and recorded it, and she took it away and sent it back with the lyrics. That's the way we started out, via e.mail.

"We've been doing that over the last eight, nine months. It's kind of an amazing collaboration. It just works somehow, and the songs are really unusual. They're really dynamic."

Martin and Brickell finished a session with legendary producer Peter Asher recently, and the as-yet-untitled album could be out this year or in early 2013. And when it's released it will add to a formidable roster of musicians Martin has recorded with that includes the Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Mary Black, tony Trischka and, for "Rare Bird Alert," Paul McCartney on the song "Best Love."

"That was really exciting," Martin acknowledges. "I mean, especially singing a song that I wrote -- that's the strange part. We're doing that song in the show now, too. It's sung by one of the band members, but you can't really say on stage, you know, 'Paul McCartney sang this on the record, but instead here's one of us singing it...'

"So you can't really mention it, you know? It just sort of goes under the carpet. But I'm really proud of it."

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 8 p.m. June 28 at SoundBoard in the MotorCity Casino Hotel, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $65, $55 and $45. Call 1-866-782-9622 or visit www.motorcitycasino.com.

Web Site: www.motorcitycasino.com

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