Steve Martin started performing as a teen, doing tricks for customers at a magic store in the nascent Disneyland. By the 1970s, he was one of the most popular and influential standup comics of all time. And since then he’s garnered further fame for his work in just about every artistic medium there is: starring in and writing a series of classic films; writing plays, short stories and bestselling novels… and most recently earning multiple Grammys as a bluegrass musician and banjo player.
His newest record, “Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell Live,” captures Steve, collaborator Edie Brickell and his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, playing live at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside, California. The performance was recently broadcast on PBS and is now out on a CD/DVD set. The band has just launched a spring/summer tour of North America, including a three-night stand at The Hollywood Bowl on July 2, 3, and 4.
He talks to Rico about emulating (and not emulating) his heroes, grafting comedy onto concerts, and putting words in Mick Jagger’s mouth.
Rico Gagliano: We are here with Steve Martin.
Steve Martin: We are? Oh great — fantastic.
Rico Gagliano: Yes — let me tell you about him! He is a maker of laughs. He is a writer of novels, plays, and films. He is an actor of stage and screen… but most germaine to our conversation today, he is a Grammy-winning banjo player and bluegrass musician.
His new live CD and DVD with the band the Steep Canyon Rangers, which also features singer Edie Brickell, is weirdly called “Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell – Live.” Where did you come up with that title?!
Steve Martin: I don’t know, I think it was just an emotional, poetic title that I came up with one night.
Rico Gagliano: Just the artistic temperament.
Steve Martin: Yeah. After a few drinks.
Steve Martin: Thank you very much, I’m very proud to be here. And you forgot, in my introduction, under acting, “Maker of Faces.”
Rico Gagliano: Oh yeah, you do that on occasion. What is the best face? Which face won you your recent lifetime achievement Oscar, do you think?
Steve Martin: It would probably have to be the face I made in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” as Ruprecht.
Rico Gagliano: That’s true — that is the Oscar-winning face! For those who haven’t seen it…
Steve Martin: Whaddya mean, “for those that haven’t seen it?” Who hasn’t seen that?
Rico Gagliano: Well, the people who are like ten — they were not alive. How do we describe Ruprecht?
Steve Martin: Oh, you describe it with [does Ruprecht voice] this voice, I don’t know.
Rico Gagliano: Let’s talk about your start on the banjo. In your autobiography, you write that the inspiration, for you, was hearing Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
Steve Martin: Yes — actually I started I think really with the Kingston Trio and folk music, and hearing the banjo in the background just being sort of strummed, and Pete Seeger, and then when I heard Earl Scruggs, that’s what really sent it over the top for me.
Rico Gagliano: We’ve got a clip of it ready, you wanna listen to this?
Steve Martin: Absolutely.
Steve Martin: Earl Scruggs was such a genius. I mean he transformed the banjo. There’s a controversy whether he invented three finger style playing, but he definitely invented “Scruggs Style,” which is that style you just heard.
Rico Gagliano: I would hope so, since his name is attached to it.
Steve Martin: Yes — it wasn’t a coincidence.
Rico Gagliano: Now at the time you heard that song, you were also into rock-n-roll… but you didn’t, for instance, start playing electric guitar. What about “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” made you want to pick up the banjo?
Steve Martin: Well you know, I don’t really know why — there was just something about the banjo that connected me back to something in America. I found it actually quite emotional and melancholy, actually. And the audience listening might not find what they just heard melancholy. I did.
Rico Gagliano: You felt that about that song specifically?
Steve Martin: Well, I don’t know if I found that song melancholy, I found it thrilling, but also there’s the modal mountain sound of the banjo that comes from Appalachia. I just loved the modal sounds, and the message of these obscure songs… murder ballads… and the darkness of these tunes.
Rico Gagliano: You had banjo in your act from a very young age, from almost the very beginning.
Steve Martin: I did — always.
Rico Gagliano: But there’s a quote here from your book, where you had this big revelation in college about being original. And here’s the quote:
“I would have to write everything in the act myself. Any line or idea with even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance had to be expunged. There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.”
So, how does that urge for newness and modernity jibe with bluegrass banjo, which is maybe the most familiar, oldest kind of American sound?
Steve Martin: Well in my comedy show, I really first started using it because I needed time. I needed at least fifteen minutes on stage to fill an act up. At that time, I could do magic tricks, I had a few jokes, juggling… and banjo.
But I also used it — as my act grew and became more… let’s call it ‘surreal’ — I liked the fact that I had something that looked hard. Because I was worried that the audience might think, “Oh, he’s just goofing around up there.” And I wanted them to have something to land on that said, “Well that looks hard, maybe this other thing is not as casual as it might look.”
I mean, that’s what I was thinking — I don’t think it actually worked that way, but that’s what I was thinking. Remember, I was twenty!
Rico Gagliano: Well it’s interesting, because there is the kind of the precision of banjo picking. It’s not a coincidence that goes hand-in-hand with comedy in a way. The timing even of your most surreal stuff is extremely crafted.
Steve Martin: Well, a lot of comedians are musicians.
Rico Gagliano: Is that right?
Steve Martin: No. Well, actually, Woody Allen. I was thinking of Woody Allen, who plays clarinet.
Rico Gagliano: Ah, of course.
Steve Martin: Kevin Nealon plays five string banjo and guitar.
Rico Gagliano: Really? Do you jam?
Steve Martin: Yes we do, sometimes.
Rico Gagliano: Will we get an album?
Steve Martin: I don’t think so.
Rico Gagliano: Come on. ‘The Comedians of Bluegrass.”
Steve Martin: Who would want to buy that?
Rico Gagliano: I would! Anyway…
The first thing you say to the audience in this live show is a joke about cellphones. In the songs, you reference therapy and email. It’s pretty clear that you’re not interested in presenting bluegrass as this, like, relic from a museum. But I’m wondering: Is it more important to you to bring new fans to bluegrass — who I think would be drawn by that — or to not drive away existing bluegrass fans? And I’m sure the answer would be “both,” but which one do you fear alienating most?
Steve Martin: You know I just can’t really play bluegrass in the pure traditional sense. I don’t have the voice for it. I don’t have the three-finger style for it. I used to play exactly like Earl Scruggs, or tried to…
Rico Gagliano: It’s incredible, your version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is eerily similar.
Steve Martin: …Well, there’s almost no other instrument where to play exactly like someone, is lauded!
Rico Gagliano: That’s true. Why is that?
Steve Martin: Because everybody wanted to sound like Earl. And it still is that way — if you can play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” exactly like Earl, that’s a fantastic thing. But you know, I didn’t have instructors. I had a friend, John McCune, who helped me quite a bit. But I didn’t have instructors. So I really developed my own way of playing, and I learned a few Scruggs tunes… but now I’m really playing my own way.
Rico Gagliano: So it sounds like you’re not really interested in appealing to purists.
Steve Martin: Well… I can’t.
Rico Gagliano: Gig’s up. That’s all there is to it.
Steve Martin: I remember this anecdote I heard where they asked Cormac McCarthy about a certain movie. They said, “Cormac! They ruined your book!” And he said, “No they didn’t — it’s right there on the shelf.” If someone wants to hear traditional bluegrass it’s very, very available!
Rico Gagliano: It’s there for you. The internet exists.
Steve Martin: Let’s put it this way: I don’t think the audience wants to come to hear me do traditional bluegrass. You know, I’ve written all the songs in the show, and it’s been working so far.
Rico Gagliano: I want to say — for those who know you mainly from your humor and are maybe bluegrass averse — this is actually a very funny show. And there are a lot of funny asides and hilarious songs, and one of my favorites is called “Jubilation Day.” Can you introduce it and tell us what it’s about?
Steve Martin: Well I always try to find an angle on a love story. On this one, I thought… well first of all: break-ups. I don’t think they get written about very often in love songs. So I thought I was going to go with that. And I wanted to make it a song like if you were breaking up with somebody and it’s like, maybe there’s a feel-good side to it.
Rico Gagliano: That’s just that’s not something you hear often in a country song, just “blah blah blah”. That’s a great lyric right there.
Steve Martin: I love that the Rangers just back it up with [sings] “blah blah blah blah.” And they came up with that. Like, “What if we went blah blah blah in perfect harmony?”
Rico Gagliano: Folk and country music in general seem more able to have humor grafted onto them than, say, rock-n-roll. Why do you think that is?
Steve Martin: Well in the early shows I saw in the sixties, when folk music came to Orange County — and bluegrass music came to Orange County — there was always a funny introduction to a song. And it could be deadly serious and still have a funny introduction. So that was just in my bones.
Rico Gagliano: Why do you think that is though? Why is it okay?
Steve Martin: Because it was a show — it was a show as much as it was a concert. Even when I first saw the Dillards. I saw Doug Dillard live, and I said “I have got to do that.” He was lightning fast, and he always capo-ed up to the fifth fret so the banjo sounded extra high pitched and extra piercing and extra driving. And they had just great great comedy. You were laughing, and then you would just be thrilled and amazed when they sang the songs.
Rico Gagliano: And that’s a trope of folk music, whereas in rock-n-roll it’s not something you come to the show expecting.
Steve Martin: Absolutely not. I remember once I was sitting in Lorne Michaels’ office, and Mick Jagger called, and they were going to do the Super Bowl.
Rico Gagliano: Right, right The Rolling Stones were going to play half-time.
Steve Martin: And he was looking for some jokes.
Rico Gagliano: For the Super Bowl?! Mick Jagger?
Steve Martin: Yeah. And I said “I got one.” I said, “How about this: ‘Please… no photos.'”
Now, I realized later that he couldn’t have been asking for the show period. Maybe he was asking for the interviews or something.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, for when he met people afterwards. Mick Jagger isn’t going to pause his Super Bowl half-time show to deliver some one-liners!
All right — we always end our interviews with two standard questions. The first one is: If we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question would you least like to be asked?
Steve Martin: I remember one interview question that really depressed me. It was after I had done the movie “L.A. Story.” And into the script of “L.A. Story” I put everything I believed about L.A. emotionally, practically, philosophically, and fancifully. I really poured my heart into this movie. And now it was time to promote it. And I sat down, and the very first interviewer said, “What do you really think about L.A.?”
Rico Gagliano: “I just spent three years telling you!”
Steve Martin: Yeah, yeah! I just had no answer.
Rico Gagliano: Our second question is: tell us something we don’t know.
Steve Martin: You probably didn’t know that I was, at one time, a pretty good trick roper.
Rico Gagliano: Like lasso tricks?
Steve Martin: Yeah. When I was in my teen years I could throw the lasso around myself, and jump in and out of it, and throw it over my head, and twirl it around my body. And in fact you can even see it in “Three Amigos.”
Rico Gagliano: That’s right!
Steve Martin: But I had to relearn it. When I was about seven years old, a cowboy came to our school and his name was Monty Montana. And he came with his horse, and he rode up and down… and when I made “Three Amigos,” it was Monty Montana who came to refresh my skills.
Rico Gagliano: What?!
Steve Martin: Yeah, it was fantastic.
Rico Gagliano: That guy was still alive?
Steve Martin: He was still alive, yeah.
Rico Gagliano: That’s amazing. By the way, is there any kind of old-fashioned skill that you don’t have? Do you also whittle?
Steve Martin: I don’t whittle.