Steve Martin on banjo

Listening to: Steve Martin's album "The Crow: New Songs for Five-String Banjo"

This will be first of a series about famous people who are known primarily for something other than their musical talents (such as actors, politicians, etc), but are secretly kickass musicians. Suggestions for a decent name for this series are welcome! 

Here is Part One: Steve Martin on the Banjo

The sound of a banjo immediately brings to mind someone in the deep south wearing overalls and a straw hat sitting in a rocking chair on a porch, plucking out a twangy tune. Well, that's what I imagine anyway...except when I listen to Steve Martin's banjo album. Everyone knows who Steve Martin is, but not everyone knows that he is a fantastically talented banjo player. I did not think I was a 'bluegrass person', but this album has seriously made me reconsider the entire genre.  

Steve Martin is a jack of all trades in the entertainment world. He's done it all, and music is no exception. His first job was at Disneyland in his early teens, where he perfected his talent for performing with magic, juggling, jokes and making balloon animals. At age 17, to round out his diverse act with music, he picked up the banjo and taught himself to play. 

“I needed everything,” he said in an NPR interview, “I did jokes, I did juggling, did magic. I put the banjo in just really to fill time, so I’d have enough to call it a show.” 

"The thing about the banjo," says Martin, "is when you first hear it, it strikes many people as 'What's that?' There's something very compelling about it to certain people; that's the way I was, that's the way a lot of banjo players and people who love the banjo are. I'd like to think it's because we're Americans and the banjo is truly an American instrument, and it captures something about our past."

The tracks on this album are chock full of remarkably memorable melodies (Daddy Played the Banjo and Pretty Flowers) and stellar banjo playing (Banana Banjo and Pitkin Country Turnaround). The difference with this particular album versus the showy super-fast banjo playing that so often invades bluegrass music, is the focus on melody. 

Remarkably enough, most of the credit for these great melodies go to Mr. Martin himself. Yes, along with being a genius comedian, writer, actor AND musician, Steve Martin is a composer with a fantastic ear for melody. He wrote, arranged or co-wrote nearly every song on the whole album (having collaborated with many musicians). 

"The Crow" album is extraordinarily addictive - consider yourself warned - I've had it on repeat on my iPod for literally weeks. Particularly if you are new to the bluegrass genre as I was, do yourself a huge musical favor and lend this album your ear. You won't be able to help but feel that it really is music that heals the heart and feeds the soul.


"The banjo is such a happy instrument--you can't play a sad song on the banjo - it always comes out so cheerful." — Steve Martin

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