If, upon hearing the news that Steve Martin has a banjo album, you have an image of Martin in overalls and a straw hat displaying a novice’s banjo-picking skills while singing about shit and Shinola, you’re not alone. (Conversely, if you have an image of Martin in a suit with an arrow through his head, playing the banjo and singing about grandma, you’re not alone either.)
The joke’s on us, however, because Martin’s appreciation for and mastery of the banjo is deeper than anyone but the most devoted fan might anticipate. Martin originally picked up the banjo to add another talent to his one-man show, and over time added satirical banjo songs. His comedic career took off, but he never set the banjo down. In 2001, he played with Earl Scruggs on the tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” for the album Earl Scruggs and Friends, which won him a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance the following year. In 2007 he played his own tune, “The Crow,” with Tony Trischka on Trischka’s album Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.
Writing “The Crow” served as the jump-off point for Martin’s new bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. 14 of the 15 songs are originals, written by Martin and arranged John McEuen, Martin’s childhood friend and member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Most of the tunes are instrumental and traditional sounding. Martin’s compositions show an aptitude for tempo, able to switch time signatures on a dime, and melody, with more than a few refrains lingering past the album’s end. He’s also an impressively emotional player, able to convey sentiment and subject, as projected in his titles, like “Words Unspoken” and “Freddie’s Lilt.”
The only intentionally hilarious moment is when Martin steps up to the mic for “Late for School,” a silly tune about a kid who can’t be late for class, and the only unintentionally hilarious moment comes when you’re forced to think about Vince Gill and Dolly Parton “making love” during their duet, “Pretty Flowers,” about a couple looking back on their courtship.
Even beyond Parton and Gill, Martin has some heavy hitters helping him on the Crow. Legendary Scruggs plays on album opener, “Daddy Plays the Banjo,” which Grammy-winning bluegrass artist Tim O’Brien sings. Irish folk singer Mary Black laments the loss of a lover but enjoys her freedom in “Calico Train,” which was recorded in Dublin. In another actor-musician surprise, Eugene Levy plays guitar on “Tin Roof.”
Still, it’s Martin who shines throughout The Crow, able to make eyes widen with even just his dexterity and speed. But “Clawhammer Medley,” a mishmash of popular American songs, like “Simple Gifts,” airs the secret of Martin’s talent: he’s a master of a five-finger playing style known as clawhammer, widely considered a difficult form of playing.
Martin’s megapersonality will probably always outshine his musical ambitions, but in temporarily casting off his silly side for a bit of seriousness, he gives us all another reason to love the banjo as much as he does.