Who’d have guessed that comedian, actor, and author Steve Martin had yet another talent up his sleeve? Yet here’s the proof, a fine collection of music featuring Martin’s lifelong passion, the banjo.
Make no mistake – this is no celebrity vanity project, coasting on fame and devoid of musical merit. This is a fully-realized and thoroughly satisfying disc, a coherent and cohesive recording with some fine fretwork.
Martin’s played the banjo all his life, and while there are no doubt others with more natural ability, he acquits himself admirably here. He’s supported by a top-notch cast – as his own liner notes claim, “This is the most expensive banjo album in the history if the universe.” Producer and childhood friend John McEuen coaxed the cream of the crop on board, with an extensive list of familiar names supporting the likes of guests Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, and Earl Scruggs.
Martin wrote all but one of the songs as well, with help on a pair and an arranger credit on a medley of traditional tunes. Most are instrumentals, some written primarily as exercises back when he was first learning to play. All have been fleshed out with full-bodied arrangements, though, with enough variety in tempo and instrumentation to keep things interesting throughout.
Fiddles, guitars, and mandolins get equal time along with Celtic instrumentation (uillean pipes, bodhran, tin whistle) added to the mix on a handful of the tunes here. Martin provides the vocals on “Late For School,” a novelty tune and the disc’s weakest moment. Gill and Parton deliver a touching duet on “Pretty Flowers,” while Irish vocalist Mary Black sings “Calico Train” and veteran Tim O’Brien lends his tenor to “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a tune Martin admits started out as an attempt to write bad poetry (it’s somewhat maudlin but not horrible).
Again, Martin doesn’t have the fastest fingers in the business, so there are no blazing workouts taken at breakneck speed. Most of the tunes here are taken at a gently loping pace, allowing everyone involved to play with relaxed ease. He’s no slouch, though, and plays to his own strengths to hold his own in some very esteemed company (fellow banjoists include Tony Trischka, McEuen, and living legend Earl Scruggs).
And while it’s the music that ultimately matters, the packaging here gets special mention, with a beautifully designed booklet that features Martin’s dryly humorous observations and explanations. It’s a pleasure to look at and fun to read. All in all this is a wonderful collection that, despite Martin’s wittily self-deprecating comments, delivers seriously satisfying music.