Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pickin' & choosin'

Comedian, actor, author and banjo player: Steve Martin has no shortage of pastimes

  • Print

Steve Martin may be a wild and crazy guy, but he's anything but a birdbrain.

Martin is best known as a standup comedian and actor, but he's also an author, playwright, art historian and Grammy-winning musician with two bluegrass albums to his name: The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo and Rare Bird Alert.

The fact both albums have avian-themed names is a coincidence and doesn't mean there's anything to squawk at in terms of Martin's musical ability. They are serious musical statements, although there's plenty of humour in the live show, the musician says during a recent conference call with North American reporters in advance of his summer tour, which stops at the Centennial Concert Hall Wednesday.

"We do a lot of comedy in the show, and I'm so much more comfortable with it now than I was 150 years ago when I first started doing it, you know?" he says. "And because we always have a song to go to and sometimes the songs are funny, but even when they're funny, they're serious. It's serious music and played seriously.

"The show is -- I should say, bragging -- well-paced. And there's a lot of drama and excitement in bluegrass music. And there's a lot of tempo changes -- a lot of up-tempo, there's a lot of slow songs, there's a lot of melancholy -- so that we've worked up a very nice show."

It might appear that the 65-year-old is just trying to break into the music scene now, but he's been a musician longer than he's been a comic. He started playing the banjo while growing up in California during the folk explosion of the 1960s, inspired by acts like the Kingston Trio, and used it in his earliest standup shows. And who can forget his sweet ukulele-trumpet duet on Tonight You Belong to Me with Bernadette Peters in The Jerk?

As his comedy and acting career took off, music took a back seat until he hooked up with legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs for a remake of Foggy Mountain Breakdown in 2001 and won the Grammy Award for best country instrumental performance. He stepped up to accept another Grammy in 2010 when The Crow was named the year's best bluegrass album.

"You know, I was playing such a character in my early standup and I'm still playing a character, but it's kind of tempered," he says, comparing his life in music to his time as a popular comedian. "And it's like the modern version of what I used to do in a strange sense... I'm using what I learned, but it's so much more relaxed and so much more fun for me."

One of the main differences about being a musician is that he's not alone all the time, whether it's on the road or in the studio. For Rare Bird Alert, he hooked up with established North Carolina band the Steep Canyon Rangers, whom he continues to play with today, and enlisted guest artists such as Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks to add their input.

The album title was inspired by the filming in Vancouver of the movie The Big Year starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The film explores competitive bird watching and Rare Bird Alert alludes to a hotline bird watchers can call if they see a rare bird or want to know where one was sighted, Martin says.

"I know that sounds funny, but it's actually quite a good movie and I was immersed in the world of bird watching and its vernacular," says Martin, who has appeared in, written and/or produced more than 50 movies (according to online sources), including The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The album has its humorous moments, including potential single Atheists Don't Have No Songs, but for fans of Martin's comedy work, a new bluegrass version of King Tut will stand out.

Martin seems laid-back these days and has been appearing everywhere from the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee to The Colbert Report to promote the album.

It wasn't easy initially, though. He has been appearing in front of large audiences since the 1970s, but when it came to music, everything was different. Playing with professionals like the Steep Canyon Rangers forced him out of his comfort zone and to up his game, he admits.

Just as comedy opened a door to film, it appears his entire career has led up to this musical breakthrough, even if Martin didn't plan it that way.

"Well, this is an accident. I didn't intend to do this. And, by the way, when I say standup comedy was a means of getting myself into film, that was an accident, too. I recognized that it was at the right moment, but I didn't intend for it to get me into film -- it just did," he says.

"And here, this banjo-playing moment, whatever it is, I don't know how long it'll last. I mean, I hope it lasts a long time because I love it. It was something that slowly cooked over the last 10 years, but it wasn't intended. I'm into it now. Now I wake up every day, play the banjo, and try to write a song."

Martin truly is a renaissance man, along with being talented, intelligent and courteous. What a jerk.

Concert Preview

Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers

Pantages Playhouse

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $61.50 and $73 at Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2011 D1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets vs. Ducks Game 2 promo

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Horses enjoy a beautiful September morning east of Neepawa, Manitoba  - Standup Photo– Sept 04, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A young goose   reaches for long strands of grass Friday night near McGillvary Blvd-See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 19 - May 23, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google