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Feature review: Steve Martin, Rare Bird Alert

Steve Martin
Rare Bird Alert
[Rounder (2011)]

Back in March 15, Rounder Records released Steve Martin‘s second album of banjo tunes in company of his touring band Steep Canyon Rangers with guest appearances by The Dixie Chicks and that well known Bluegrass great, Paul McCartney. From the looks of how it’s held up over the last few months, they might as well order up another Grammy or two.

Steve Martin is one of those guys with the Midas touch, who might well be considered the definitive renaissance man of the entertainment industry. He has two Grammy awards for comedy albums to his credit, besides a pair he has from the music category. And both came as a result of his first forays into the music recording industry. He also has won Emmys for comedy writing that go way back to his earliest work, not to mention several best selling books, both for the children’s and adult’s markets. And all that on top of a host of successful, albeit often over the top, roles in comedy films, and a long career as top billing stand up comedian.

His break out in music came late in his career, considering that he’s been in the public eye for over four decades now. Readers in a certain age bracket will recall his start on the Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour in the late 1960s, and the many appearances on the Tonight Show, going back to Johnny Carson’s era that helped launch his career. The success in comedy has a lot to do with his special knack for presenting the most ordinary and little noticed incidentals of life as if they were the entirety of what everything else was all about. It isn’t surprising to note that this same attention to the little noticed also plays into his song writing.

From those early days, Steve also played the five string banjo, although more usually it was relegated to the role of comedy prop in a manner reminiscent of Jack Benny’s violin. What might have been surprising to many was that, like Benny, he is a very capable musician. If there was ever any doubts, they were assuaged by his collaboration with banjo great Earl Scruggs on the 2001 recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” that also included musicians Marty Stewart on mandolin, Vince Gill and Albert Lee on guitars, Paul Shaffer on piano, and a host of other equally accomplished musicians. That effort won Steve Martin his first Grammy in the music category and established his credentials as a banjo player worthy of note—and not just another celebrity hamming with the big dogs. Here’s a link to the performance on the Letterman Show:

Following that experience Steve put together his first music album featuring 13 original songs from his own pen, The Crow. The title track of that album, an instrumental, was first recorded by Tony Trischka (who also produces both of Steve’s albums on the Rounder Label, which was released in 2009. It won him his second music grammy for best Bluegrass album.

Coming off of that success, and despite a year in which he produced two new books (including a children’s book), a new film that he just wrapped up production on the beginning of this year, and touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Martin has put another album of original music that is no less inspired than was the first. As with The Crow, the title cut on this new album, Rare Bird Alert, is also an instrumental banjo tune, both penned and played by Martin. There may be a connection here to the film he just completed production on, “The Big Year.” In that film, Martin plays a member of bird watcher’s club, which seems to fit the theme, at least by title.

Of the remaining 12 songs, full writing credit is given to Martin’s pen for the majority, and the remainder collaborative efforts in which he at least wrote the lyrics. The second cut, “Yellow-Backed Fly,” on the surface is merely about fly fishing for a trout, but more broadly is an apt statement about Martin’s approach to life. In the words of the song, “He may only be 20 inches long, but to me he’s Moby Dick.” Another song here threatens to become a standard of the bluegrass festival field picking sessions: “The Great Remember: To Nancy,” which has as pretty a melody as any ever heard. There is another pretty song sung here by the Dixie Chicks, “You,” which has the feel of a nineteenth century ballad, partially due to the claw hammer banjo and strong reliance on melody. While the general style of this album is not solely traditional bluegrass, it’s worthy of mention that Martin pays his respects to the genre’s roots. “Women Like To Slow Dance,” right down to the 2 min 15 time span, would have qualified for a radio spot right between the biscuit flour and used car ads in the heyday of the genre.

But before you start thinking that Steve Martin has slipped into some devotional awe of tradition, two comedy songs—that whether by chance or choice fall at the end of the album—will dispell any such notions. The somewhat irreverent “Atheists Ain’t Got No Songs,” which has been for some time making the email rounds as a YouTube link, comes across like a true Bluegrass Gospel tune until one considers the lyrics.

But just which way the sarcasm is aimed is debatable. It’s a toss up between mocking traditional religion and atheists, mentioning about every monotheistic faith and their particular claim to musicology, while pointing out that Atheism is more concerned with never capitalizing the “h” in “he” than writing songs. This isn’t all as innocent as might be apparent though, especially since Atheism doesn’t lack for its zealots—a point Martin makes with that very issue. In case you don’t already appreciate the genius of this man, there’s adequate argument in this song alone that Martin is a universe away from the simple buffoon he often plays in movie roles.

—H. Stephen Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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