Steve Martin, as Steve Martin is wont to do, gets his first joke in early. The one-time Wild and Crazy Guy is a full-time banjo player these days — clawhammer style, for the diehard pickers out there — and his current album, Love Has Come for You, is an old-timey Americana gem made with wispy chanteuse Edie Brickell. He writes the plucky music; she pens the lyrics. Sort of like Elton John and Bernie Taupin, I say during a phone chat with both Martin and Brickell.
"Yes," he deadpans, "I get to wear the big sunglasses."
Steve and Edie — oh, they've heard the gags about that more than enough by now (kids, ask your parents) — talked about teaming on a project a couple of years ago. She's married to Paul Simon, a longtime friend of Martin's. Then, lo and behold, it actually happened: "I write a song on the banjo and then Edie takes that and puts a vocal melody over that," says Martin, 67. "There are always two melodies going on."
To support the delicate, tuneful album, which has been a surprise hit on the Billboard charts, Brickell, who still talks and sings like a la-di-da Texas flower child even at age 47, will join Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers band on a summer tour, which stops at a sold-out Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Thursday. It's a sweet, organic, gently sexy pairing, not unlike the May-December creative union of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss from a few years ago, although this is far more steeped in bluegrass.
"I've just been so inspired," says Brickell, who many will remember as the hushy, lilty singer of the 1988 hit What I Am with the New Bohemians. "I've had to alter my thinking and just let my imagination flow. The moment I heard his music, I started hearing stories. It took me back emotionally."
Martin was equally impressed in return. "I was blown away initially, and I keep getting blown away as the music continues to grow."
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Martin took up the banjo at age 17, and although he incorporated his musical obsession into his standup act in the '70s and '80s, the instrument has always been the one place he could go where he wasn't necessarily STEVE MARTIN. "A friend told me the banjo thing is good for me because for once (when I'm around other musicians) I'm not the most important person in the room." He adds with mock haughtiness: "The most famous, but not the most important."
There's no ego connected, he says; if anything, it's constantly humbling. "Banjo is the one thing in my life that is completely different from everything else I do," he says. "I guess you could call it a solace. It was always a private thing. Like collecting art — I rarely talk about art." Then, with the dry timing of the comic master he is: "Well, except with you and the entire newspaper."
For the longest time, Martin wasn't sure he wanted to record and release a straightup banjo record. "There's always that thing where you don't want to be attacked for something," he says. "So there was a little hesitation. But that really doesn't bother me now. Before I do anything, I ask: Is there actually something to offer here? I think there is."
In 2009, he released The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, which won a Grammy for best bluegrass album. It's intricate, authentic, but it's certainly not self-serious. There's even a comedy song, Late for School, that I tell Martin my daughters have demanded to hear hundreds of times — or at least as many times as I've watched his Thanksgiving epic Planes, Train and Automobiles. "I used to do (Late for School) in the show, but it was a lot of work remembering all those words." He laughs: "Now I make Edie remember the words."
Brickell is more than willing: "I like to sing songs that are fun. Why don't I do that more often?" What she won't be doing, however, is cooing any of her own songs on tour. When I say I'd love to hear her song Circle, especially with Martin's banjo accompaniment, there's a pause. Her voice is squirmy, cute: "Steve won't let me!" Martin jumps in: "Edie! We might at a later date. But we're still rehearsing our tunes." Brickell laughs, a fluttery little chuckle, and why not? She is working with Steve Martin, after all.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.