by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 21, 2011
08:05 AMBox Office
Q & A: Steve Martin
A loud and clear disclaimer: This Is Not My Interview. Rather, it's a transcript of a telephone conference with Steve Martin, conducted on April 14, 2011, attended by a host of journalists from all over the country, so 99.9 percent of the questions are theirs. A lot of transcript editing was done for the sake of clarity—assuming no one wants to read every "Thank you," "Hi, Steve" or "you know"—but for the most part, the questions and answers are represented in their entirety and in the order in which they occurred.
Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers (banjo player Graham Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt, bass player Charles R. Humphrey III, fiddle player Nicky Sanders and mandolin player Mike Guggino) play the Warner Theatre in Torrington June 30. For more info, call (860) 489-7180 or visit warnertheatre.org.
Steve Martin: Hi everyone. Thanks for getting on line—getting on the phone. I know you can’t say anything but. . .
Actually I wanted to say that Rare Bird Alert sounds amazing.
Thank you very much. We’re very happy with it.
I love the song "Atheists Don’t Have No Songs." And I wondered if you’d share the story behind that track and talk a little bit about how it’s been received.
Well, you know, the story is in the liner notes and I’ll reiterate it because it’s actually true. Because I used to listen to The Steep Canyon Rangers sing their gospel song during the show.
I started thinking about—what I actually say in the show is that religious people have this great art and great music and atheists really don’t have anything. So I thought it’d be really funny to write a hymn for atheists. I had the idea for a long time and I sat down and I wrote all these lyrics. I knew it needed a kind of gospel music but I didn’t really know how to write gospel music. So I presented the idea to the Rangers and they said, "Yeah, we can think about it." I gave them all the lyrics, And then one day Woody and Graham showed up with the tune and I just loved it.
I was a little afraid because it had all these high notes in it and I said, "I’m really worried about singing this. I practiced it so I could do it. But we didn’t know how it was going to be received. We decided to try it one night in a show. In the middle of it the audience started laughing, and we just kind of looked at each other—we knew we had, you know, a new four minutes for our show. We were all so excited that it worked so well.
I wanted to ask you what you thought of Tony Trischka as a banjo player and what he brought to the album as a producer.
Well, I love him as a banjo player. You know, I just did a concert at—I didn’t do a concert, James Taylor did a concert and he asked me to do some stuff on the show. Some of it involved playing along with James Taylor songs. And, you know, I don’t really have those chops. So I went to Tony and I said, "Can you help me?" There’s a lot of flatted-seventh minor chords that just don’t really come up in bluegrass. And so I asked him and he just had all these chops down and really helped me through those songs. In fact I played those better than I did my own songs.
My first CD, The Crow, was kind of a produced record and this is more of a band record. He really knew how to do that. You know, he can just evaluate the sound of the banjo and the sound of the band so well. And he’s easy to get along with. That’s what we all needed. He had the patience to sit and listen to us. And he also—I know the word is "arranged"—but I should say he choreographed a lot of the songs, too, so that was really nice.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Woody [Platt] about a year ago. And he told me about the first time that you all met and got together for a very informal picking session, when you and your wife were on vacation down in Brevard [N.C.]. And I found myself wondering what was that like for you in terms of the chemistry? Was it sort of an immediate thing? How did that sort of develop into this project going back to that first very informal jam . . .
Well, I didn’t know what to expect. They just said a local band was coming over. I didn’t know if they were professional or, you know, a get-together-Sunday-afternoons kind of band. But I immediately could see that they were pros. And I was a little cowed by it, actually.
And then a couple of times after that, you know, we played some songs together on stage, like one or two songs. And I couldn’t believe how my songs sounded. They never really sounded that good to me before. These guys have the same sense of drama that I have, which I like. It just went from there. When my agent said, "Well, you’ve got to go on the road to promote this album and you need a band," I said, "I know who to ask."
It’s just one of those lucky things in life, that you accidentally get tied up with a group or a group of people that works out perfectly for both of you. It continues to be a good creative match both musically and stage-wise. I think our show has developed into something really nice too.
Woody told me, "We get very very few complaints or questions from bluegrass purists about playing with Steve. We had one person ask us why are you playing with Steve Martin? But they were unaware of his prowess on the banjo." And I find myself wondering, on the other hand, do you get people who come out seeing your name on the marquee—Steve Martin—and don’t realize that these guys that you’re playing with are a very accomplished bluegrass band in their own right?
I’ve never had that. From the very first day The Rangers have gotten rave reviews. So in a sense a lot of people didn’t know the The Steep Canyon Rangers and that’s a great place to come from for people who are coming to see me because they go, "Wow, those guys were great." I’m really glad about that, that they’re seeing a highly polished tight band. Because it reflects well on me. You know, Jack Benny had a rule—he didn’t care who got the laugh on his radio show because it all reflected well on him. And I have the same belief that the band plays great, the band is tight, the audience loves the band, that reflects well on the show. So that’s been really good.
I also had a chance to speak with Woody and the guys in the last week or so and he had a lot of great things to say about you. He said that after this much touring and doing Rare Bird Alert it’s no longer, you know, Steve and the Rangers but it’s its own band. I was wondering what’s your take on that. And was it hard at first kind of coming into such a tight knit group?
Yes, it was, because I’ve never played with a group in my life. I used to travel with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—open the show for them and maybe play one or two songs with them on stage. But I had never played with a group. And it did take me a while to get used to it. The first time I appeared on Letterman it wasn’t with The Steep Canyon Rangers. It was with some very good players. We were promoting The Crow. After, I got a call from my friend Pete Wernick and he said, ""By the way, when the other person is playing it’s customary to look at them." And I said, "Oh, really?" So I was kind of learning these little things as I went along.
It took me a while to get relaxed enough just to look away from the banjo neck every once in a while—common things that people who have been playing music on stage for years and years just do automatically. And now I feel 100 percent comfortable on stage playing music. But the only way you get relaxed is to do a hundred shows in a row. By show 20 or 30 or 40 it’s just another day in the life. It’s like fear of flying. If you have fear of flying, my aunt says, just take 30 flights in a row. And by the 16th or 17th flight you won’t be afraid anymore. It’ll just be another day.
Tell us a little bit about how and when you first picked up a banjo and who your musical influences were at the time?
I would’ve been 17. It would’ve been about 1962. I lived in Orange County, Calif. And this was during a folk music craze that was led by the Kingston Trio, who used a banjo. That was quickly replaced because I heard Earl Scruggs play, which is a whole other level. And then I heard the Dillards play live and that was another different level. Because when you hear somebody play live you can’t believe what the five string banjo is doing.
And then I just got into it. I started finding records. There were a lot of banjo compilation records with different players. I also had a friend in high school—John McEuen—who became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band. He taught me a lot. I just got very lucky. And I really practiced hard especially early on. It was a struggle, because I was doing other things too, and I didn’t have people to play with. That led to me writing a lot of songs. Because I didn’t have people to play with, I didn’t learn much of the canon of bluegrass. I really learned my own songs.
Did you intend to become a musician then, rather than an actor or a comedian?
I was always aiming to be in show business. And I really liked the idea of playing on stage; I liked the ego trip of standing there and playing the banjo. I really liked that. But my heart was in comedy, and that's where the fortunes led me. I used the banjo on stage during my comedy shows in a kind of comedic way and also in a serious way. I always played a serious banjo song at least once during my shows.
Connecticut is not really known as bluegrass country. Is coming here a way of spreading the bluegrass gospel?
Well, I don’t think of it as "spreading the gospel." I’ve never taken a poll, but I think a lot of the audience that comes to our show either doesn’t know bluegrass at all or kind of knows it. And I think they always leave thinking, "Wow, that was fantastic." Not so much thanks to me but thanks to The Steep Canyon Rangers. And we also do comedy—or I do comedy in the show. So it’s never like one song after another. That could get old if you’re not into this form of music. My feeling is that people leave really happy and maybe want to continue sampling this kind of music.
And also, I think it fits in with a certain kind of hall, where people see a concerto one week and Chinese jugglers the next, and then they see us. It’s all part of a cultural mélange that gets booked into those kinds of theaters. I’m really happy to be part of that, because we get invited back to places the next year. At least, so far—we've only been performing for a year. But I think that’s really a nice tribute to the music and what’s going on on stage.
Do you feel any pressure to perhaps step up the tempo when you play to "Northern audiences," for lack of a better term?
Not at all. In fact, if anything the opposite is true. If we’re playing a bluegrass show for a bluegrass audience that’s when we really feel pressure. We almost want to do less of a "show" and really concentrate on the more complex songs. But we played MerleFest and the truth is we didn’t change a thing, and they loved it just as much. So I’m contradicting myself.
You’ve covered "King Tut" live with the Rangers. I wanted to know if you could talk about how the decision was made to play that particular number and if there was any trepidation or reluctance from you about playing that song with this group.
Let’s put it this way. There was a little trepidation. But also it was my idea. I thought it was a funny idea to do a bluegrass "King Tut." We’ve been very lucky in that, you know, I do comedy in the show but when the music comes along the audience is able to just transform itself and take it seriously. Some of the songs are funny. A lot of the songs are serious. And there’s really been no problem with the audience adjusting itself to whatever the next beat is. And "King Tut" is always an encore. It’s never treated as a big serious number in the middle of the show.
We don’t always do it, by the way. We do it occasionally. I’m sure we’ll do it in Vegas, because what would be more appropriate? I worked there as a stand-up comedian in the '70s. But I did question putting it on the record. The reason I finally included it was I also want people to know that our live show is fun.—that when they come to the live show it’s not going to be me standing on stage with my back to the audience playing 30 songs in a row with no comedy.
Tell me a little bit about how you kept up with the music scene when you were doing music and comedy and everything else. I mean, are you somebody as a banjo player that kept up, you know, Béla Fleck and all the different people who were . . .
Well, you know, it was hard to keep up until the Internet came along. Once that happened, it meant that you could suddenly find bluegrass records. And satellite radio—with satellite radio you could suddenly get radio stations, and bluegrass stations, from across the country in your own home. That opened a whole new world for me. Because if I went to a record store, I didn’t even know what was good or what was bad. And suddenly I was able to hear it on the radio. I could also randomly buy records of banjo players on Amazon or iTunes. I started to hear music that I really, really loved. That got me back into it again.
Did that help inspire you as a song writer?
No. It was later that I got back into songwriting. Because I got back into the banjo in a more serious way, I got back to songwriting by default. That was always my way.
Going into the making of your first album, The Crow, was there anything in particular that dictated that this was a good moment for you to pursue the banjo and bluegrass full-time, after having played it for so long? And now, with two fine albums to your credit, do you see banjo and bluegrass as having an ongoing place in your career in the future?
I think it does have a place for me because one, I love it. And the songs keep coming. We’ve got at least four new songs that I think are really good. I've even started to wonder why an album needs 13 or 14 songs; nobody has time to listen to them anyway. Maybe we could do an album of four songs. But we’ll see about that.
I do kind of like having the outlet to play music because it uses a different part of my brain. I like the camaraderie of it. I like improving my musicianship. I also enjoy doing the comedy portions on stage in small doses. I definitely wouldn’t want to be doing stand-up again. I also like that I have five other guys on stage with me who are great, who have the same sensibility I do—at least when we're playing together—and who are, in a weird way, reluctant comedians rather than show boaters. I think our shared attitude works really well for us.
As for why I thought the time was right for The Crow . . . it was just all accidents. I had recorded a song for Tony Trischka that I had written, called "The Crow," on his double banjo album. Then it just dawned on me, maybe I’ll like host an album where I play four of my songs and have other people play theirs as a way to present the banjo to the world. And then I looked and I said, "Well, I actually have enough of my own." And then I had a week open. So I just . . . I didn’t have a deal. I just paid for the album myself and got John McEuen to produce it and found the deal later to release the record.
This is the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth . . .
Yes, it is.
Do you have any Bill Monroe stories?
Not a one. But you know, I came late to Bill Monroe because the first—let’s say "old-timers"—I got into were Flatt & Scruggs. Eventually, I realized that he wrote all the songs I really loved. And so I really have only become a fan, I'd say, within the last 15 years. I just think he’s the greatest. I have heard some lore, but I don’t have any really good stories that haven’t already been iterated by somebody else.
Are you surprised that people find it harder to believe that a comedian can write and perform serious music than a serious musician can do comedy?
I think it is unusual, only because there’s few examples of it. You know, I was going to suggest to a friend of mine who’s a singer—Steve Tyrell—he’s a really good crooner, who plays the Carlyle Café in Manhattan and other fancy night clubs. I was going to suggest to him that he sing, "Smile, though your heart is aching." And then do the song, "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," and then sing a song from my record—"You"—which is kind of an emotional ballad. The first song was written by Charlie Chaplin. The second song was written by Steve Allen—you may or may not know him, I don’t know—and the third one was written by me. That’s the only three comedians I can think of who actually wrote songs. So I can understand that, because it is a little odd. But singers can certainly do comedy . . . think of Dean Martin.
I really like that you’re noticing other musicians with the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, and wanted to ask about that.
When I first came into this sort of music—which would be the '60s—there was a level of musicianship that I would say was high. When I came back to it that level of quality had quadrupled; the average player was so above average. I remember this prize came about—we're talking about my annual prize for a banjo player, when I give out $50,000 cash to a bluegrass musician selected by a board of great bluegrass musicians—after my wife and I were at this little club in LA that was hosting a bluegrass weekend. And I’m listening to these great, great players; then my wife and I went to dinner and I said, "These musicians shouldn’t be playing for just 200 people." One of them was still paying off his banjo; another had a day job. So I thought this award might help give them some cash, might free them up to do something bigger and might bring further attention to them and to the music.
By the way, banjo players do earn money. I’m just citing some particular cases; some people are really struggling for their music. And I have a feeling . . . I’m hoping that bluegrass or at least some mutated form of it can cross over into a larger arena. I think there’s a lot of young exciting bluegrass players. For example, the Punch Brothers; Chris Telay is a very charismatic mandolin player. Bluegrass has commercial potential but it's still a secret to a wider commercial audience. We’ll see what happens in the next 10 years.
Was it easier to get other musicians to take you seriously? Or was it harder for them to change this image they had of you as an actor and comedian . . .
Well, it’s a funny thing about the banjo. Sometimes when actors try to become musicians there’s a great resistance. But I’ll tell you why that is: It’s not that they’re trying to become musicians. They’re trying to become rock stars. And that’s always kind of ludicrous. It’s like they’re not "paying the dues." But the banjo looks and sounds very difficult. And it is. So, suddenly they’re not laughing when you play a three-finger banjo riff at lightning speed. It’s just as simple as that.
I always wonder, what would I think if I saw David Letterman pick up the violin and play Mozart. I would go "Wow," you know, if it was decent. I wouldn’t make fun of him.
Would you pay to see him?
Well, I don’t know about that. It depends.
You know, I have to have confidence in my own music or honestly I wouldn’t put it out there. I really wouldn’t. I look at every record—every song on every record—and I go, "Is this valid?" And I really do believe by the time it’s out there that every song is valid. I don’t want anybody . . . you have to be extra careful in a strange way.
So, I have been lucky to be able to sort of transform . . . I haven’t been ridiculed. I mean, when we got six IBMA—International Bluegrass Music Association for people that don’t know—award nominations for The Crow, it was fantastic. Because that’s the toughest group I have to pass muster with. So it has been really rewarding. And I have met the best players. And they’ve been very kind and nice to me.
Are there any similarities or differences between doing music and all the other art forms you do, like comedy or magic?
I do think about this. Sometimes I get asked it and I never have a good answer. But the only similarities I’ve found are metaphorical. In other words they’re not real similarities. They’re just fanciful. Like, I can say, "A musical line is like a sentence. It has a beginning, middle, and end. And a phrase in a song is like a paragraph. And of course there’s lyrics. You know, lyrics are similar to book writing or sentence writing. A lyric has to flow like a sentence." But even that is different because you can kind of cheat in a nice way with a lyric. You can get away with things you really couldn’t get away with in a sentence on a page.
So, it’s really honestly from another part of the brain. When I started doing this again I felt I was using another part of my brain. I felt I was buying . . . I was staving off Alzheimer’s. That’s what I actually felt, that was coming from somewhere else. I said this on David Letterman. He asked, "How do you have time to do all this?" I said, "Well, I don’t have a job. I don’t go to work. I wake up and there’s hours in the day."
And also, I enjoy doing it. It’s fun for me to either have people over or to . . . you know, I think I’ve written more songs while watching television. You’re sort of fiddling around on the banjo and you make a mistake because you’re not watching where you’re going and you think, "What was that?" Then you try to repeat it, and more comes out of bad playing, actually, than good playing. I don’t know where it comes from.
I don’t follow many celebrities on Twitter. But once I knew you were coming here I started following you, and your account is really quite entertaining. You were talking about liking to still do comedy. Is this kind of a release for you since you’re not doing stand-up anymore?
It is. It’s kind of like going back to old fashioned comedy writing. It’s only 140 characters so you can think up something funny or odd or quirky. When I used to write for television if something didn’t work there was always next week. If I issue a tweet and I feel like it wasn’t that good I feel like I have to make up for it right away. I have to think of something really funny to patch it up. But it has been very interesting. And it’s taught me how to edit in an interesting way, to turn three words into one, which is good as you all know, you’re all writers. But we’ll see if it’s actually a detriment the next time I write something serious, like a book.
I was wondering how you thought performing with you has boosted the careers of James Taylor and Paul McCartney.
Oh yes—you know, those guys were struggling! Actually it was quite a thrill. I have a lot going on and sometimes you don’t remember things so clearly. But I remember every detail working with Paul McCartney that day. And I remember every detail of working with James Taylor two nights ago. And he was such a gentle guy. Paul McCartney was completely delightful to everyone in the room regardless of position. Very funny. They were just really really nice.
I've found with most celebrities at the highest level that there’s a reason they get there and stay there. Now I can’t say that as a generality. This goes for musicians in the bluegrass world too. They are wickedly smart and really funny. Most are college educated. And they’ve made choices along the way that this is what they wanted to do. It’s really surprising the background of a lot of people in show business.
Did Paul McCartney really say you sounded terrible as a singer?
It wasn’t quite like that. He thought I was going to sing on the track "Best Love" and I said "Okay, but I’m a terrible singer." And when we got togther to work on it he said, "When you said you were a terrible singer I thought you were being humble, but you weren’t." It was done with a sense of humor.
I was just looking at your blog which I really enjoy. And you put up there that those three cent and seven cent royalty checks. Now that you’re actually putting out records and working with labels and you’ve been sort of introduced to the music industry, I was wondering how the music business might remind you of the other businesses that you’ve come into contact with, like movies and television. What are your thoughts on where the music business is going? It’s sort of in chaos right now.
Well, that’s a very hard question to answer. All I see is on the Internet is "Download Steve Martin records for free." And I know that those sites are filled with viruses and everything so people get screwed. In my case it's more common that people take videos that I own, put them on their site and sell advertising. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. It’s not really hurting me. I’m in a different position. But I can imagine that at another level it’s hurting hundreds of thousands of artists.
And I don’t know what the answer is to that. I was told that it used to be, records filled concert seats. Now concerts sell records because they're sold live at the concerts. The business has completely changed.
We have two packages for our CD. One is deluxe, sold on Amazon. And one is a regular CD. The deluxe package is outselling the regular package. And it means that, yeah people actually do want to buy a package. So maybe that’s a good thing that they actually do want something to hold in their hands. But I don’t really have an answer for you because I can see that it’s bigger than I thought out there in terms of piracy.
You mentioned the package, and I love your liner notes. Can you talk about your process for putting those notes together? Do you enjoy that?
Yeah, I really do. I like writing about every song, telling the story of every song. You know, some I do better than others. But I like telling the story of how we got the records together and telling the story of what the year was like. I remember when I was younger and I'd get an album they had liner notes. You read every paragraph of those liner notes because you wanted to get into the artist’s head. It’s a good tradition for me. I really do enjoy it.
And I love the way the designers—Greg Carr and Salli Ratts out of Colorado—they just do a fantastic job designing these records. They did The Crow, too.
I was just wondering if you would ever consider bringing your comedy and banjo playing to maybe a special events show on Broadway?
I really don't know if I have the stamina to do eight shows a week. That to me is very hard. If I had to do two shows in one day, that'd be like when I started out. But I have thought about some kind of musical involving my music. I thought that would be kind of interesting. I have thought of it in that way—as a creator of something, rather than a performer. So that’s in my head. But whether I get it done or not I don’t know.
You were recently featured in the "American Masters" documentary about the Troubadour Club in LA. And I was just wondering what it was like being a part of that historic part of American music history.
Of course, at the time we didn’t know it was historic. It’s just people hanging out. But it was a very exciting time—I was listening to Linda Ronstadt and precursors to the Eagles. And I was hearing comedians. Actually, I was one of the few comedians there, if not the only one. Cheech and Chong came in but that was way later. Everybody had sort of moved on by then. But it was a real hang out for musicians. You know, I think I talked on that show about how Glenn Frey came up and pitched me names for his group—Eagles. So, it was a real undiscovered bar scene with a lot of talent floating around, including talent "spotters" like David Geffen.
As you’ve mentioned The Crow was a complete triumph, very acclaimed, great reviews. In preparing material for Rare Bird Alert did you feel that you wanted to capitalize on that first album’s success, yet chart some new territory creatively?
Well I didn’t think about that at all. I just had 12 new songs. But I knew I was going to do it with The Steep Canyon Rangers. So I didn’t really think about topping The Crow. This was just the next album.
I knew I wanted to do it with just the band. The Crow has a lot of other musicians on it. This one features just the six of us, except for a couple of cuts. That’s really the only difference from The Crow.
Why do you think—and you’ve touched upon this a little bit—why do you think the banjo particularly became your instrument of choice? Why not the xylophone or the tuba?
I just loved the sound of it. And you’re right because there was the mandolin. There was the fiddle. There was the guitar, everything. I just loved it. And I can’t explain that. That’s just primordial. When I heard it I literally could separate the other instruments out with my ears and just listen to the banjo. I loved both its melancholy aspect and its dynamic speed.
What would be the perfect performance night in your mind? Would it be the band playing together to their best of their abilities, or the audience engagement?
I'd say it’s both those things. It’s where we’re playing great and the audience is responding to subtleties. We all remark when we get off stage if we’ve had a good show and if we’ve noticed a few audience members just sort of watching our hands. We kind of like that for some reason, I don't know why.
You know, I judge my playing first of all, like how well did I play. And then there’s this overriding thing of how well did the show go, how well did the audience like it? There’s a million ways to appreciate your own work, really.
You talked a moment ago about the liner notes and the process of putting those together. One of the things I noticed in reading the liner notes is that it seems that your songwriting process is to take an observation of something quirky or unusual and then play around with it and make it funny.
That’s one way to do it, to find something— for example in "Jubilation Day"—that idea started out like, "Oh, I think I’ll write a song about a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend completely guided by his self-help books, his shrink and" . . . there was one other thing. But the song quickly changed into he was with the worst girlfriend in the world, and it was a liberating event for him to break up. And that’s what that song actually became.
With "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" I just had that phrase. I thought, "Wow that’s a nice little phrase for a song," because that is kind of in a nutshell what a lot of peoples' relationships are like, especially at first because you’re not really clear if you want the person or not. I kept that line in my head for a long time.
So that really started with a line. The Atheist song started with an idea. The song "You"—which the Dixie Chicks sing—really started with the melody. And the melody dictated what the song was about. So there’s all kinds of different ways to do this.
I have a new song, which is not on the record, about Paul Revere . . . and that came from reading a modern history book on the real story of Paul Revere. But I came up witha sort of twist on it, that it’s sung from the point of view of Paul Revere’s horse. So it’s Paul Revere’s horse telling the story of what they did that night. So, you know, every song is a little bit different.
I'd like to know more about the Dixie Chicks’ involvement with Rare Bird Alert, actually. You just touched on that a little bit. But they’ve been kind of off the radar since Not Ready to Make Nice and winning the Grammy Awards. So I was interested in how you went about getting them involved with the song "You," and how that worked.
Actually, it was a suggestion by Maureen O’Connor, who’s on the phone right now. And she had worked with—correct me if I’m wrong—a person who had worked with the Dixie Chicks and their name came up. And it was perfect for "You." I jumped at the chance because I know they have great harmony. And the song is made for harmonies. I used to do it on stage with the band, with The Steep Canyon Rangers. They sort of volunteered to give up the song on the record to get the Dixie Chicks. I still do it with the Rangers in the live show. And when you see the show you’ll know that they do an admirable job too.
But the Dixie Chicks were great to get. They did a beautiful job. And they were really delightful to work with. And there was no acrimony—you know, one of the rumors on their breakup. They all seem to be very very close friends in the studio.
Having looked at your website, I know that according to your concert rider all venues on this tour were "required to have Béla Fleck on speed dial" in case of emergency. I’m wondering if you’ve taught him these songs in advance.
No. Béla Fleck is a friend. We’ve played together a little bit. He’s on another planet when it comes to his playing. But he’s a very good guy. In fact he’s on the board of my banjo award thing. And I’m playing tonight, actually, with his wife Abigail Washburn at the Metropolitan Museum. We’re doing a charity thing for a friend of ours.
We're friendly, but he can’t keep up with me, let’s put it that way.
The banjo and bagpipes probably get made fun of or are the butt of many more jokes than other instruments. Any comments on that? And do you know any good banjo jokes?
No—I try to forget them because I love the bagpipes and I love the banjo. I’m trying to present the banjo . . . you know, the banjos in the '20s and '30s were always presented by comedians. And they were usually sort of, you know, dressed in coveralls and wore straw hats. That’s why we dress up. A lot of the bluegrass acts now are dressing up. So we’re trying to kind of change that perception.
Banjo jokes and bagpipe jokes are like Polish jokes. Now, they’re not really politically correct. So I’m trying to change that image, trying to put it off on another instrument—maybe the harp.
Is there anything out there that’s written about you that’s incorrect that keeps coming up? Or do you think people have misconceptions about you?
I'm trying to think. There were a few, years back, but I don’t see those things anymore. One was that I was in Mensa. I’ve never been in Mensa. One was that I was a Mormon. Never been a Mormon. There are a few incorrect quotes I see on the Internet but they're not even worth correcting. There's some quote from my act which was "to be a millionaire, first get a million dollars." It’s a shortened version of a routine I used to do, but it’s an incorrect quote and doesn’t strike me as funny. The real quote is too long to explain; that’s why they shortened it.
Given the subject matter of your film that's coming out this October [The Big Year], how much does the title of the album Rare Bird Alert tie into that? Or was it a complete coincidence?
It ties in, but not in a commercial way. We were involved in bird watching and the lingo of bird watching and that just seemed like a good title. There is a thing called a rare bird alert that people dial up on their phone apps and get a rare bird alert. Actually, my wife suggested it as a title for a song. Which it was until it became the title of the album.
Does being on the road now remind you of your comedy tours way back when? And do you do the old-fashioned bus thing? How do you roll?
Well, I have a joke about it in my act but I don’t want to spoil it right now. We do travel by bus. And I like it. Especially because of the guys. When I was doing my stand-up it was just me alone. And that was hard. Sometimes now I can fly home after show, spend the night in bed. I stay in classy hotels. It’s really nice. And I do 10 days at a time so I don’t kill myself.
And there’s always the guys around. When I roll into town, I’m not sitting alone in the room. We practice or work on a new song or talk about the show. It’s good.
What was your last appearance in Connecticut?
I think it was in Stamford—am I saying that correctly? My play—Picasso at the Lapin Agile—played there. I wasn’t on stage but I was the author. And they did a great job of presenting it. I think it was about 10 years ago.Q & A: Steve Martin