Steve Martin, one of the most diversified performers in the motion picture industry today - actor, comedian, author, playwright, producer - has been successful as a writer of and performer in some of the most popular movies of recent film history.
Late last year, Martin had two books published: In October, Doubleday released a children’s book titled The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z!, co-written with fellow The New Yorker illustrator Roz Chast. In December, Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, was published by Scribner.
Additionally, in December of 2007, Martin was the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor.
1. Daddy Played the Banjo 3:19 (S. Martin, G. Scruggs)
2. Pitkin County Turnaround 2:29
3. Hoedown at Alice’s 3:21
4. Late For School 4:48
5. Tin Roof 2:20
6. Words Unspoken 2:56 (s. Martin, P. Wernick)
7. Pretty Flowers 2:43
8. Wally on the Run 1:37
9. Freddie’s Lilt 2:51
10. Saga of the Old West 3:24
11. Clawhammer Medley 2:16 (Trad.,arr. and adt. by Steve Martin)
12. Calico Train 4:47
13. Banana Banjo 2:14
14. Blue River Waltz 2:13
15. The Crow 3:26
16. Calico Train 3:13 (Instrumental)
Produced by John McEuen
All songs written by Steve Martin except where noted
I’ll Let the Banjo Talk
I have loved the banjo my whole life, and this album of fourteen compositions is the result of forty-five years of playing seriously, as well as playing around. Five of them were written over forty years ago; to compensate for a lack of professional instruction, I made up tunes myself. The rest were written recently in a six year burst of reanimation after Earl Scruggs asked me to play on his Earl Scruggs and Friends album. I got back up to speed and recorded Foggy Mountain Breakdown with Earl and a dozen other players, then kept going, resurrecting the old songs and writing a cycle of new ones.
Years ago in my comedy act, I said, “You just can’t play a sad song on the banjo.” This was for comic effect only, because I knew the banjo had a capacity for mournful melodies, and the “high, lonesome sound.” As I was sometimes mournful, sometimes lonesome, and sometimes high, this suited me perfectly. I also found myself passionately affected by the banjo’s driving staccato, darting rhythm, and inexplicable sadness. It was as though the banjo generated nostalgia for experiences I never had, joy I was yet to experience, and melancholy that was yet to come. I had been introduced to other instruments: My mother dabbled at the piano, my father played the clarinet passably, and the guitar and saxophone were blasting through the radio in the early days of rock and roll, but I had no desire to play them. When I heard the banjo on Kingston Trio and Flatt and Scruggs records, bingo. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one, even though I had no musical background at all or any concept instruments worked. In my first attempts to play, when I pressed my fingers earnestly on the strings, I couldn’t even hear the differences between chords. I remember saying to myself at a particularly frustrating moment in my banjo practice, “if I just kept at it, one day I’ll have been playing for forty-five years.” That day is now here. I cant imagine the vacancy I would have had in my life without this particular instrument running through it. The songs that I have written for this record represent the influence of a dozen players and a thousand tunes, and I thank them all, but it’s the banjo itself I thank the most, this musical and geometrically beautiful object. A circle with a stick attached, four strings running up to its end, and a droning fifth string stopped halfway up the neck. It shouldn’t even be playable, but it is.
Because the banjo has always been so present in my life, it’s hard for me to think of it as an underground instrument. Yet, even though thousands of people crown bluegrass events all over the country, bluegrass seems mostly invisible in the world of music that is focused upon by the media. I remember in the nineteen-eighties, when young people were routinely and earnestly piercing their noses eyebrows, stumbling upon an Irish Fair and discovering thirteen and fourteen year old girls competing with old-fashioned innocence in an Irish step dancing contest, so far outside the darker world of the American teenager. I dint think that this wholesome, high spirited, uncynical atmosphere existed anymore, but it did. It just wasn’t getting any attention. I suppose the banjo and bluegrass are like that, the acoustic alternatives for those seeking solace from the volume knob.
I recently took a photo of my wife sitting on the floor reading a book. Later, I realized it inadvertently contained three things I love most in my life: my wife, my dog, and my banjo. The only thing missing were all my friends, whom I could not have crowded into the picture. I can assume that being the spouse of a banjo player is difficult. I knew an ex-ballerina. Nora Kaye, who had been married to the violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. When asked what it had been like being around the house with this great genius, she dismissed it, sighing, “all day long… squeak, squeak, squeak.” Well with the banjo it’s “all day long… plink, plink, plink,” until finally music comes out. But now I’ll let the banjo do the talking, and I only say that because it would be wrong to say, “now I’ll let the banjo do the writing.”
(“Well, with the banjo it’s all day long… plink, plink, plink”)
The Crow is the song that started this whole project
Tony Trischka asked if I would like to play on his album, “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.” I responded that there were at least five hundred banjo players better than me that could score on traditional tunes, but that I did have a few of my own. He came over for a listen and liked “The Crow,” and we recorded it. The song had a surprising afterlife, appearing on the bluegrass charts, making it my first hit single in thirty years. (The other was “King Tut.”)
The song came to me after listening to Tony Ellis’ great banjo tunes, many played in C or double C tuning (also known as C modal), and I started looking at that tuning again. “The crow” came easily; it just seemed to flow from the finger tips.
Tony Trischka contributed a great harmony banjo part, and helped me figure out the chords (meaning I watched while he told me what the chords were). The sensational break in the middle is exclusively his, and Béla Fleck, when we played it on the David Letterman show, came up with a dynamic section that Tony plays at the end of his break, which leads back nicely into the main theme.
Thanks to all!
I was nineteen when John McEuen showed me “open D” tuning on the banjo. I liked learning new tunings; it’s like getting a new exciting friend. Open D lends itself to these lilting melodies, with the open (unfretted) strings ringing along in the background. I love the old Irish fiddle tunes, and this represents that influence. By the way, there is no Freddie, unless we get a new dog, or cat, or kid.
Wally on the Run
Our dog, Wally, likes to run at top speed down out hallway taking giant, airborne leaps over a series of short, three-step stairs. I played around with the opening lick (not from Wally, but slang for “musical phrase”) for years, but it all came together watching him run. Wally does not understand the song. I can tell because of his stares.
Hoedown at Alice’s
Alice McEuen is married to Bill McEuen, my manager/producer during my early film and stand-up years. I wrote this song in the late sixties, and dedicated it to her. I was trying to capture the cheerfulness of the banjo, and write a song that sounds like it was written years ago, and now guess what? It actually was written years ago. The middle break was an effort to counter the simple melody of the tune. Also I loved the name Alice.
(“frailing,” is not in the stupid dictionary…)
This is the only tune on the record that I didn’t write, but I did put the arrangement together years ago when I was learning clawhammer style. Clawhammer, unlike three-finger, is played without picks and uses the thumb and back of the fingernail to produce the melody. When I first heard “frailing” (an alternate term for clawhammer) I knew I had to learn it; I couldn’t spend all that time learning the banjo and not have this beautiful style in my repertoire. Incidentally, I have lost many a scrabble game because the word “frailing,” a common word among banjo players, is not in the stupid dictionary. Even now, my spell checker refuses to acknowledge it. I changed the original title from “Drop Thumb Medley” (yet another term for frailing) to “Clawhammer Medley,” bowing to pressure to be modern.
The songs in this medley are Sally Ann, Johnson Boys, Simple Gifts, and what ever the song is called that has the line, “you take the high-road…” I think it has about fifty titles, “Loch Lomond” and “Red is the Rose” among them. I used to play them live on stage in the nineteen-seventies, but a much faster tempo for the live audience. I’m glad now to play it at its appropriate speed.
(“Tony was like a parent urging a child onward…”)
Blue River Waltz
This is a result of idle playing. I had tuned the banjo to an alternate D tuning, and, Too lazy to tune the fifth string back down a note, I left the banjo in that key for about three weeks. I came up with the first half of the melody but couldn’t realize another section. I was sitting in my living room with Tony Trischka, who has so generously contributed to this album not only as a player, but as a welcome spirit, and I was playing the tune, complaining that I couldn’t find a second part. Tony was like a parent urging a child onward. He nodded his head, indicating for me to go down the neck, indicating yes and no while I fingered around, the visual equivalent of “hot, cold, and warmer” until I finally found a second half.
Daddy Played the Banjo
I had read a book called “The stuffed Owl,” which was a collection of bad poetry through the ages. I put it down and thought, “I could write some bad poetry!” I did, and came up with a poem called Daddy Played the Banjo. I looked at it a couple of years later and thought, this is not so bad, at least not as bad as I intended it to be. And I remembered a quotation, it’s source forgotten though something tells me it’s Oscar Wilde, “words too silly to be spoken, are sung.” I rewrote the poem to exorcise the silliness, showed it to Tony Trischka who did his nodding dad thing until I came up with a melody, then I got together with Gary Scruggs (who better to collaborate on a song called “Daddy Played the Banjo”?), who contributed significantly to the final lyrics. I am very lucky to have the smooth voice of Tim O’Brien, who sang at my wedding, and also honored to have the most influential banjo player who has ever lived Earl Scruggs, playing his three-finger style on this most appropriate song.
This song began it’s life as an instrumental called, “Calico Mine Ride.” The Calico Mine Ride was an attraction at Disneyland when I worked there as a teenager, and I gave this song the title in tribute to the memories of those days. We recorded the instrumental and were about to be done with it, but I began to think the melody could take lyrics. John suggested the Irish flavor and I set to work. I wanted to write a song with the same theme as “I’m sitting on top of the world” (the Bill Monroe version), about someone who doesn’t let a breakup break them down: “now you’re gone, I don’t worry, ‘cause I’m sittin’ on top of the world!” John contracted the great Irish singer, Mary Black, Whom I had been listening to for many years, even using her music to “get in the mood” for specific acting challenges. She said yes, and we all flew to Dublin for one day to record her. She and her husband Joe were a delight and we ended the evening at a pub playing and singing with some great Irish musicians, who, mysteriously, never seemed to have to tune their instruments, and never made a mistake, even after tankards of Guinness.
Pitkin County Turnaround
This is one of my early tunes, and I don’t know what prompted its creation, except my love of Scruggs Style and my desire to emulate it. I was living in Aspen, Colorado when I wrote it, and because Aspen is in Pitkin County, and just about every drug store and bar was called the Pitkin County something-or-other, Pitkin found its way into the title. I called it a “turnaround” instead of a “breakdown” because I was a hippie freak who thought it was cool and meaningful.
(‘listen to it over, and over, and over, and over, and over’)
I wrote this song around 1968. It was meant to be exciting both musically and visually, with rapid chord changes that make the fingers chase up and down the neck. I ended up no playing it much on stage; I think the rhythm pushes made it hard for the audience to grasp. Now with this record, you can listen to it over, and over, and over, and over, and over. In the nineteen-sixties, after hearing a Felix Slatkin arrangement of John Henry on the banjo backed by orchestral strings, a concept unmentionable in today’s advanced banjo world, I believed there was an appropriate combination of violins and the five-string. John McEuen attacked the idea with glee. I will let you be the judge, though you’re not allowed to be too harsh or you will be punished.
Saga of the Old West
I wrote this song around 1965, influenced by the rapid pull-offs and hammer-ons of Dick Rosmini’s “Fast and Loose” (The Banjo Story), Billy Faier’s “Goodman Coonhound” (same record) and Ravi Shankar’s sitar music that was seeping into our southern California culture. After hearing the song at the recording studio, Pete Wernick suggested that it should be called “Saga of the Old East,” but since I had recorded it on an earlier comedy record, I felt the title should stay the same.
The day we recorded the song, my old favorite banjo a 1927 Gibson Florentine, had a mysterious buzz and sent it out for tweaking. I had with me a Kel Kroydon banjo and used it on this song, which saved the day and worked perfectly for the tune.
This song has the longest journey form start to completion. I had the main melody as early as 1970, but no second part would follow. However, I never forgot the central theme. When I recorded (on my iPod with a mike the size of a dime) some sample songs as guide tracks for the musicians who might be involved in this album, I included it, calling it “Unfinished Sons in D.” Peter Wernick responded to it and asked if I would mind if he took a stab at the middle part. Well, he took a stab and pierced it, writing a lovely second half. It’s him playing mostly up the neck (toward the drum) and me playing down the neck (toward the peg head). We had been experimenting with words for it (Pete suggested the lyric, “words unspoken”), but I couldn’t get to it before the records release. I thought it made a great title for a song. The lyrics are practically finished, and will probably pop up on one of Pete’s records, or my record if I ever do another one, or maybe, just maybe, Barbra Streisand’s.
Late for School
I had bought a new Stelling banjo. I had learned about them from my friend and fellow player Billy Connolly, the comedian and international artiste. It arrived, and I took it out of the case, and started playing this song. I cant tell you why it should happen this way, but it was as though the song had been shipped in the box. I gave it the title “Late for School,” and it was purely an instrumental. During the recording, I found myself thinking that the image the song produced of a young boy late for school was extremely vivid. I wrote the lyrics a month later a month later, and we recorded them after manipulating the existing track.
I was shooting Pink Panther in Boston, and for exercise I would ride my bicycle on the excellent bike path that loops over and across the Charles River. A tune Popped into my head with the lyrics fermenting along with it, and I furiously typed them into my new iPhone while crashing headlong into other bikers. After several days of this I had all the lyrics and copied them into my computer. Then, as moths passed without playing it, I forgot the melody for almost two years. All I could remember were two notes tied to a finger placement at the fifth fret. I sat and noodled on the banjo for days, with nothing coming back. Then I ignored it, and at last the tune popped back into my head. I am lucky to have such great artists, Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, singing it.
The banjo is infernally locked in the key of G, so when John and Pete suggested I tune it down to E to make this song more singable, it was like saying, “tune it down to wet spaghetti.” I did, but any extra pressure put on the string as I pressed down on a fret would throw that note subtly out of tune. After listening to the first mix, I went back in and recorded it again with lighter touch. I’m playing the lead banjo, and Earl and Pete are supplying a lot of tasty background work.
I was playing around on the set of Cheaper By the Dozen II when this song started to come to me. Eugene Levy, one of my favorite people second only to myself, plays hours on the movie set doing impromptu shows outside our trailers for any one who would listen. My wife Anne is from the south, and it was she who gave this one its name. Tin roof, of course, is slang for methamphetamine. Just kidding.
Steve Martin - All the frailing and most of the Scruggs style Banjo, Vocal on track 4
David Amram - Percussion, Wind Instruments on tracks 9, 10, 12, 16
Russ Barenberg - Guitar on tracks 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, and 14
Mary Black - Vocal on track 12
Chris Caswell - Accordion, Orchestra, Piano on tracks 2, 5, 13
Michael Daves - Guitar on tracks 2, 7, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16
Jerry Douglas - Dobro on tracks 1, 4, 7, 10
Stuart Duncan - Fiddle, Mandolin on tracks 1, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16
Craig Eastman - Fiddle, Octave Violin on tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16
Matt Flinner - Mandolin on tracks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16
Vince Gill - Vocal on track 7
Brittany Haas - Fiddle on tracks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16
Kenny Malone - Percussion on tracks 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 16
Bruce Martin - Bodhrán, Tabla, Percussion on tracks 1, 4, 7, 8, 10, 12, 16
John McEuen - Guitar, Banjo, Bowed Guitars, Electric Bass, Efx, Mandolin on tracks 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 16
Tim O’Brien - Vocals on track 1
Liam O’Floinn - Uilleann Pipes, Drone, Tin Whistle on tracks 3, 10, 9, 12, 16
Hans Olson - Harmonica on tracks 1, 4, 7, 10, 12, 16
Dolly Parton - Vocal on track 7
Earl Scruggs - Banjo on tracks 1 and 7
Tony Trischka - Banjo on tracks 8, 15
Jourdan Urbach - Hot Classical Violin on track 13
Skip Ward - Acoustic Bass on all tracks
Pete Wernick - 2nd chair Banjo on tracks 6 and 7
John McEuen, my high school friend, accomplished musician and valuable contributor to my education on the banjo, produced this record, played on many tracks and generally was responsible for seeing that this was the most expensive banjo album in the history of the universe, and that includes possible alternate universes, too. I didn’t know that spa visits and facials were and ordinary expense in making records but John convinced me that they are. He also mixed the record (along with the expert ears of Nick Sevilla) did a majority of the arrangements, and supervised the post-production with excellence. The original session was supervised by John, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka and myself, and all these strong banjo minds had to get along. I always believe that projects can be worked on without yelling and hurt feelings, and yes, we did it. Tony was the early organizer of the sessions. He wrote out charts and wrote tablature for some of the more oblique tunes. John was the main guy on the knobs, along with Tony and Pete. Pete Wernick was always the truth-teller (not that others weren’t) and I always checked in with Pete’s face before moving on to another tune. After the initial session, John McEuen took over and mixed all the songs, adding vocals and tracks not only in New Jersey, but in Nashville, Los Angeles (including the historic Capitol Records building in Hollywood), and Dublin. That’s right, Dublin. And, finally, thanks to all the musicians who contributed their talent and their goodwill, as well as their artistic interpretations and lyrical musical breaks. They took my songs further than I ever thought they could go.
John would like to say special thanks to Marilyn McEuen for her continuing inspirations and ‘go for it’ attitude, Teresa Hughes, Karen Pairbank, Mary Sue Twohy and Robert Aubrey Davis (my understanding Acoustic Traveler XM radio mentors), Janet Deering, Joe O’Reilly, Bill & Alice McEuen, Larry Fitzgerald, Gary Scruggs, Kel Kroydon, Desiree Deascentis, Wally, Tom Sherlock, Monica Sevilla, Jim Ratts, Kristen Houck, Ilene Waterstone.
This is the most expensive Banjo album on the history of the universe and that includes possible alternate universes, too
Dolly appears courtesy of Dolly Records
Vince appears courtesy of Universal Music Group
Photo of banjo boy courtesy of Bill Harmon
All songs published by LA Films Music except where noted.
Tracks 2, 3, 9, 10 & 13 published by Colorado Music (ASCAP) administered by Winston Music Pub. & LA Films Music (ASCAP)
“Daddy Played the Banjo” G. Scruggs Songs (BMI) administered by Bug Music, and LA Films Music (ASCAP)
“Words Unspoken” Pete Wernick, Niwot Music (ASCAP), and LA Films Music (ASCAP)
C P 2009 40 Share Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.
Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, TN
engineered by Pat McMankin, Rob Clark, George Tutko
Bennett Studios, Englewood, NJ
engineered by Dae Bennett, Johnnie Truesdale, Travis Stefl
Cauldron Studio, Dublin, Ireland
engineered by Michael Manning, Billy Robinson, Ciaran Byrne
and at Acoustic Traveler Studio, Hollywood, CA
mix engineer Nick Sevilla
recorded on Pro-Tools @ 48|24
Sandee O. Photography photos of Steve and his banjo on Freddie
Artwork & design G. Carr & Salli Ratts gcarr.net