Steve Martin on Playing the Banjo Live: “I Would Be Much More Nervous If I Were Doing Comedy.”


Steve Martin headlines Carnegie Hall tonight, but he won’t be stepping onstage with a fake arrow through his head. That sort of behavior is best left in the past, an era that “if you’re under 30, you never even had a chance to see,” Martin says on a teleconference call from Los Angeles. However, the actor/comedian/writer will be wielding another prop from his stand-up comedy days: the banjo. Martin’s touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers in support of his new bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. Although he admittedly considers this tour “an experiment,” performing music is a far less stressful proposition for him than telling jokes. “A song lasts three minutes. A joke lasts six seconds. I would be much more nervous if I were doing comedy.”

The Crow, Martin explains, has been decades in the making. “When I first started practicing and I’d be particularly frustrated. I would say well, ‘You know, if I just stay with it, one day I’ll have been playing for 40 years.'” He kept at it, though throughout the ’80s and ’90s, his interest was primarily somewhere else. “I’d written those early songs very early, and I was very young, and really didn’t do much [with them] until about six or seven years ago. I realized I had enough songs for an entire record.”

With the release of The Crow in May, Martin has successfully wrangled decades of off-and-on writing into 16 songs, with guest spots from Vince Gill and Dolly Parton. The tracks range from the comedic tale of “Late for School” (“Elbowed grandma passing by/Her face went into a pie”), to the mellow tones of “Pretty Flowers,” which he performed on the season finale of American Idol. “I have heard that my appearances on television have introduced bluegrass music to more people,” he says. “And that’s something that happens every 10 or 20 years–and then banjo sort of retires for another decade. I’m sort of that guy right now.”

With this album, the versatility of Martin’s career seems to have just expanded beyond all logic, but he still remains modest about his accomplishments. “I’m wondering if I’ve exhausted my repertoire here,” he says, laughing outright. “I’ll probably just stay in the movies.”