Steve Martin’s celebrity really took flight back in the 1970s. Then a sharp, unforgettable stand-up comic, the man’s absurdist humor and talented musicianship became something to savor.
Nearly four decades later, after establishing himself as a major box office draw, Martin’s orbit remains intact—but for reasons that might have eluded other performers of his generation. For starters, he managed to learn that cookie-cutter Hollywood films may not be the best way to (always) go and, instead, turned to matters of the heart. In his case, that was a deep love of music and performance. Blend all that into his already prolific writing and acting career—among other creative proclivities—and you get the sense that these days, Martin isn’t so much about staying “relevant” as he is giving birth to, and nurturing, good, memorable work. On the eve of a much-anticipated Santa Cruz outing with bluegrass besties the Steep Canyon Rangers, we dissect the icon as he shares a variety of bons mots. Behold: 11 Things You Should Know About Steve Martin …
11. His name is Steve and he’s a quad-hyphenate
Actor-comedian-writer-musician. Got it? Then again, Martin’s human, too. So, we’re talking Quint-hyphenate all the way. But five is such an unruly and—must I really point this out?—odd number, so … if we tossed in the fact that the guy wears glasses, technically, we’re in the Sext-hyphenate zone, which sounds much sexier. But should we point out the fact that Martin is also an established producer, we open up ourselves to whatever the hell a sept-hyphenate will do to the brain. Onward …
10. He’s becoming a Santa Cruzan
Well, for a day, at max. Martin hits the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Friday March 14, appearing alongside robust bluegrass titans the Steep Canyon Rangers—by far, one of the genre’s most prolific and engaging posses.
9. Crawls under the creative bed sheets with the Steep Canyon Players often
“We have all become good friends through the years, and our musical collaboration has become tighter and tighter,” Martin tells GT of his bond with the bluegrass group. “Also, we have developed a lot of fun comedy on stage that we enjoy doing together.” True. The dates back to 2009, which triggered an appearance on a broadcast of the much-lauded “Prairie Home Companion” of the same year. “I have always loved [‘Prairie …’] and it was a dream of mine, and the band’s, to be on the show.” In the years that followed, Martin continued to hit the stage with the group, which rose from the artistic soils of Chapel Hill, N.C. The quintet’s rousing ensemble includes Woody Platt (guitar, lead vocals), Graham Sharp (banjo, harmony vocals), Mike Guggino (mandolin, harmony vocals), Charles R. Humphrey III (bass, harmony vocals) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle, harmony vocals). By 2011, the International Bluegrass Music Association awarded Martin and the Steep Canyon Players Entertainer of the Year.
8. He’s a skilled musician
It’s been reported that Martin has been playing the banjo since he was 17. In his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” he wrote about how he took 33 rpm bluegrass records and slowed the things down to 16 rpm and would then tune his banjo so that the notes would resonate the same. He was able to ascertain each note and perfect his playing that way. But it was folk singer John McEuen who helped Martin hone his skills and after McEuen entered the fold of The Nitty Gritty Band, audiences could find Martin doing stand-up before the group’s gigs in the ’70s. Music was never a passing fancy, though. Quite the contrary, it has always been one of Martin’s greatest passions. And one, over time, that captured critical praise, too. A collaboration with Earl Scruggs (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with Martin on banjo) garnered a Grammy in 2001. When, in 2009, Martin birthed his own full-music album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo—what a fine piece of work, too, featuring, among other talents, Dolly Parton—the album later took home a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. American Idol fans may have caught him in a Season Eight episode. Things sort of really took off, musically, after that. Martin has been at it ever since and has appeared with the Steep Canyon Players in a variety of festivals and late-night outings, including Conan and The Colbert Report, and others. But another partnership had to be added to the mix. On that note, did you know that …
7. Martin collaborates well with others, especially Edie Brickell
Brickell is the acclaimed singer-songwriter whose debut album (with the New Bohemians) in 1988 tore up the Billboard charts. Martin’s collaboration with Brickell on their 2013 album, Love Has Come For You, proved to be fruitful—it nabbed a Grammy this year for Best American Roots Song. “We were quite surprised,” Martin notes of the Grammy win. “The competition was very renowned. But we have a great producer in Peter Asher and were proud of our record and song. Edie and I were in a magical state when we wrote the songs for our record and it was nice to have it acknowledged.” Their partnership is far from over. Look for Martin and Brickell’s first-ever live concert television broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances (Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell Live) to air this month (check local listings). To that end, Rounder Records’ release of a potent two-disc CD/DVD package documenting the special event, which should garner attention. One last Brickell note. The artist takes the stage with Martin et al on several tours down the road, too. To get a sense of how well they play off of each other—in case the Grammy win wasn’t enough to convince you—on Martin’s website, there’s a video clip of their collaboration on “Pretty Little One,” a darkly comedic bluegrass ditty that’s hard to forget as it humorously foretells of a date, a gun, a knife and some smart small talk that turns so bad—big time.
6. Still iconic
After storming onto the scene in the ’70s and making a major splash on stage, bolstered, in part, by his numerous guest-hosting duties on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Martin’s stand-up work was quickly embraced. Everything from his “Happy Feet” dance and gut-bustlingly funny comedy albums (Comedy Is Not Pretty, A Wild And Crazy Guy) to his chart-topping “King Tut” ditty and famous avowal, “Well, excuuuse me!” fueled the man’s unstoppable success. Fame soon found the Texas-born, Baptist-raised, California-bred, former high school cheerleader—true!—Disneyland employee—he was not Goofy!—Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour writer and frequent Tonight Show guest. He quickly moved onto headlining films (The Jerk, Pennies From Heaven, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). His on screen work in the ’80s was slightly more reined in—sort of—(All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood.) His film outings in the ’90s showed off deeper nuances (L.A. Story, Grand Canyon, Father of the Bride, The Spanish Prisoner, Bowfinger). Writing and music remained a mainstay—he has authored more than a dozen books (from 1979’s “Cruel Shoes” to 2011’s “An Object of Beauty”), in fact. A three-time stint hosting the Oscars was well received. Able to breeze through artistic mediums with both panache and humor, he remains one of the best and most prolific entertainers in the business.
4. But still shoots up big doses humor
Relax. It’s not drugs—it’s humor. If you’re going to be addicted to something, the Big H is the way to go. As Martin once quipped: “What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” Thus far, there have been no recorded cases of upchuck, so, cheers to Martin’s vast and diverse catalogue of humor. However, it was refreshing to catch up on Martin’s take on comedy in his lengthy 2008 Smithsonian Magazine piece in which he noted, in part, what swayed him away from conventional joke telling—“what bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song”—to becoming a more skilled comedian that could “coax a laugh with tiny indicators such as a vocal tic (Bob Hope’s ‘But I wanna tell ya’) or even a slight body shift … These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime.” That said, everything from Martin’s books and music to his plays, movies and even his website, smacks of a distinctly original style—intelligent, cheeky, absurdist. In fact, when you visit stevemartin.com, there’s a waggish array of offerings on the site, including a list of witty “notes from the road.” The top three anecdotes that caught my eye:
1– “Maybe audience gets tired of my ending each song ‘ta da.’”
2– “New Goal: Get ‘Steve Martin nude’ to beat ‘Steep Canyon Rangers nude’ on Google.
3– “Arthritis schmarthritis. Some people need to work on their clapping.”
3. Was chosen as No. 6
in Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. Enough said.
2. Appreciates art
Martin is a trustee of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and reportedly collects the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, Richard Diebenkorn, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Pablo Picasso. But art is also the backdrop of Martin’s 2011 novel, “An Object of Beauty,” a fascinating tale of aspiration and deceit set against New York’s dramatic if not tinted art scene. In a CBS interview several years ago he reflected on art, noting that if it’s impactful it has “wall power—how it holds the wall; how it feels when you’re 10 or 20 feet away from it and how it takes hold of the room.” Last year, he curated a spellbinding show for renowned Canadian artist Lawren Harris, whose work he first discovered in an auction catalogue. “Being an American, I thought he was an unknown artist. Little did I know that he was Canada’s greatest painter,” Martin told the press at the time.
1. Strums to the rhythm of a different banjo
It’s not rocket science, it’s a metaphor. Try to keep up. “Marches to the beat of a different drummer” is so overused and I’ve already given it more attention here trying here to explain the obvious: That Martin is, actually, an iconoclast. (But while I have you here for a moment—let’s face it, your psyche and soul may be hanging on every word at this point as we boldly venture off together toward the final “ta da” in this article—are you aware that it was Henry David Thoreau who originally wrote, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” American language kneaded that expression into its current usage. Regardless, Thoreau’s advice is ardent.) Speaking of advice, let’s end with something Martin has to say about some of the best advice he’s been given about life: “The advice I’ve actually followed has been advice from smart friends for a specific situation rather than general ‘life’ advice. Wise sayings seem profound when you hear them, but are hardly remembered when crisis strikes.”
Actually, that sounds like the making of a good bluegrass song.
Catch Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at 8 p.m. Friday, March 14 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St, Santa Cruz. For more information, visit pulseproductions.net. Have some fun at stevemartin.com.