Before he said, "Excuuuuse me!" before he was a "wild and crazy guy," before he wrote a novel or acted in a movie, Steve Martin was a banjo player.
In 1977, wearing what would become his signature arrow through his head, Martin played a competent version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on a freewheeling "Gong Show."
Yet Martin's musical prowess was generally unknown. In a telephone conference call in advance of his tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers, which will stop at Chautauqua Institution on July 1, Martin provided some background.
In the 1960s, "I was a teenager in Orange County, California, and there was a folk music craze led by the Kingston Trio," says Martin. "The banjo was a part of that craze, and I heard it and I just loved it. And there are a lot folk music groups that eventually led me to bluegrass music and I started buying any banjo record I could get my hands on."
Martin's first bluegrass CD, "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo," won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2010, meaning that Martin has now experienced success as a comedian, comedy writer, actor, producer, novelist, musician and composer. The inside cover of the CD "Rare Bird Alert," with the Steep Canyon Rangers is illustrated by an old-fashioned cross-section schematic drawing of Martin's skull, with talent areas mapped in his brain. In addition to the above, he has areas for "Eruditer," "Art Collector," "Magician" and "Human Cannonball."
Unlike the drawing, Martin doesn't segregate his abilities. "I look at it as all as just one big conglomeration that has several tentacles," he says. "They're all kind of part of one big, creative umbrella. I like to make things up." Writing for television, he says, "You become essentially two people. You become a creator, you write a joke, and then you become a fixer, meaning an editor. And that is involved in everything I do, whether it's comic acting or performing on stage, writing a novel or writing music. You are creating it and then you are fixing it. And those are really the two things I do."
"Rare Bird Alert" contains 13 tunes, liberally seasoned with wit. "Jubilation Day" is an up-tempo celebration of the breakup of a bad relationship ("In my dreams/ You wear a red cape and a pitchfork"); a lightning-fast "Women Like to Slow Dance"; the hilarious "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" ("Romantics play Clair de Lune/ Born-agains sing, 'He is risen,'/ But no one ever wrote a tune/ For godless existentialism") and finally, a madcap "King Tut." Yes, the original, "born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia" King Tut, which Martin wrote and performed in 1978 on "Saturday Night Live" with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band calling themselves the Toot Uncommons.
Martin tells how he decided to include the novelty song, released while the King Tut exhibit toured the United States, which sold more than a million copies.
"I debated whether to put 'King Tut' on the record because I thought, 'Well, that might diminish the seriousness of the record.' But then I thought it was funny to have a bluegrass version of 'King Tut,' but secondly I wanted people who bought the record to know that the show we do is not a comedian who goes out, turns his back on the audience, and plays 20 songs in a row, and then says good night," says Martin.
In the show, he says, "We do a lot of comedy. I'm so much more comfortable with it now than I was 150 years ago when I first started doing it." At the same time, he emphasizes, "The songs are serious music and they're played seriously."
After releasing "The Crow," Martin's agent suggested he hire some bluegrass musicians and go on tour. Martin had played a few tunes with the Steep Canyon Rangers after being introduced to them by his wife, Anne. But, Martin says, "I actually worried for them to team up with me because I thought, 'I don't know if this is going to look bad in the bluegrass world for them, or be good for them, or what?' It turned out to be very good for them, because it's doubled the size of their audiences, and now they've been on television. So I'm very happy about that."
And having the five young Steep Canyon Rangers on the bus with him opened up a whole new world for Martin. He now enjoys touring, which as a solo comedian he found boring and lonely. "You're really just awake to do the show and you're in sort of a coma for the rest of the time," he says. But now, he says, "It's really nice. Sometimes we listen to last night's show or we'll work on a new song, and it's really a nice way to travel around and conduct business. We sit around and we get out the instruments and, you know, eat a peanut butter sandwich that you wouldn't really have if you weren't on a bus."
As he and the band have gotten to know each other better, he says, "They're not shy around me. They'll say, 'Well, I think this is better than that. And by the way, last night you did this joke better than that,' so it's a lot more like a team."
In the show, although he doesn't want to spoil it for those who attend, Martin says the Steep Canyon Rangers "play sort of what they are, which is modest guys from North Carolina, and I play sort of the arrogant Hollywood idiot, you know? Not idiot, but arrogant Hollywood movie star, and it works out well. You sort of get the feeling they're putting up with me."
Although he says it is "coincidence" that both of his bluegrass CDs have an avian theme -- first "The Crow" and now "Rare Bird Alert," Martin explains that he learned the latter phrase while making his soon-to-be-relased movie, "The Big Year," with Jack Black and Owen Wilson. "It's about competitive bird watching, which I know sounds funny, but it's actually quite a good movie," he says. "I was immersed in the world of bird watching and its vernacular, and there's a thing called a rare bird alert ... birders can call up a hotline and find out where the latest rare bird has been sighted." The CD cover has his and the Rangers' heads on fanciful bird bodies. On the back, guest artists Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks are portrayed as birds, too.
Martin writes in the CD's liner notes that he and McCartney had "met briefly only twice, but then [I] conveniently counted [him] among my closest friends."
Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers will also perform at "A Capitol Fourth," the live PBS broadcast of the national concert, from 8 to 9:30 p.m. July 4. That concert also will feature Little Richard, Josh Groban, Matthew Morrison from "Glee," "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, Broadway star Kelli O'Hara and the National Symphony Orchestra.
Martin says he and the Rangers will perform a song he wrote "called 'Me and Paul Revere,' -- it's the story of Paul Revere's ride as told from the point of view of his horse, and it sounds like it's a funny song, but it's not a funny song."
Deeply involved in and satisfied by his fourth or fifth creative reinvention, Martin says, "I'm very happy to be, first of all, doing something that's completely new to me, and also to be, at my age, still doing a show that I can tell is entertaining audiences. ... I don't think we've ever not gotten a standing ovation on any show we've done. And I know standing ovations are cheap, but they seem sincere when we do our show."
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers perform "An Evening of Bluegrass and Banjo" at 8:15 p.m. Friday 7/1 in the Amphitheatre at Chautauqua Institution.
Tickets are $39, available at www.ciweb.org or by calling 357-6250.