Steve Martin's got a secret, something newer fans may not even know. The comedian, actor, novelist and playwright is one of the country's most talented banjo players.
This isn't classified information, but it's surprising more music fans don't talk about it, considering Martin's skill on the instrument and the pure, unadulterated joy he exudes when he plays a bluegrass tune. Madison will get a taste when Martin performs with North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers at Overture Hall on July 27.
Even bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs, for whom the Scruggs style of playing is named, hasn't gotten the hang of the clawhammer style Martin's mastered. Scruggs was thrilled when Martin accepted his invitation to play a new rendition of Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the banjo tune popularized by the chase scenes in the 1967 crime classic Bonnie and Clyde. The track appeared on a 2001 album called Earl Scruggs and Friends.
It was another friend who helped Martin become the musician he is today. A school buddy named John McEuen showed him some banjo basics early on, after which Martin ventured into more challenging territory. McEuen went on to join the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1966, while Martin incorporated goofy banjo tunes into his standup act.
At Martin's home, next to his legendary art collection, there hangs a collection of Depression-era Gibson banjos. According to a recent New York Times article, the instruments serve as an invitation for musically inclined visitors to take part in a jam session - or ask Martin to give an impromptu recital.
Recently Martin decided to bring his beloved pastime out of the living room and into the limelight. Though he's played on recordings by Scruggs and fellow banjo master Tony Trischka, Martin's 2009 album The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo is his first full-length recording of original bluegrass tunes. The album topped the U.S. bluegrass charts before winning a Grammy earlier this year and features contributions by Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and many other notables.
It gives Martin's reputation as a "wild and crazy guy" a new meaning, one that involves singing, toe tapping and one stunning lick after another.