Before he was that wild and crazy guy who had us in stitches on "Saturday Night Live," Steve Martin was a struggling stand-up comic who often used the five-string banjo as a prop.
But the banjo wasn't a gimmick for Martin, who began his love affair with the instrument more than 45 years ago. His involvement in two recent projects ("Earl Scruggs and Friends" and Tony Trischa's award-winning "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular") invigorated his interest, leading to the brilliant and engaging banjo album, "The Crow" (Rounder).
Produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen (who was one of Martin's early banjo teachers), "The Crow" is not strictly a bluegrass album. Martin does break down with some hard-driving 'grassy tunes backed by such talented pickers as Russ Barenberg (guitar), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Matt Flinner (mandolin) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). But the CD is better thought of as an acoustic album with Martin's excellent banjo playing and compositions as its focus.
Martin has mastered the subtleties of both clawhammer and bluegrass styles, which he uses to craft an album of diverse textures, tempos and moods. His original tunes and songs range from reflective ("Daddy Played the Banjo") to frantic ("Wally on the Run"), and feature Celtic as well as American traditional voicings.
An impressive roster of contributors includes Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, who duet on the quietly romantic "Pretty Flowers;" Irish singer Mary Black, who sings of liberation on "Calico Train," and Earl Scruggs, who plays banjo on "Daddy Played Banjo" and "Pretty Flowers." And those looking for the trademark Martin whimsy will not be disappointed by his wacky romp, "Late for School."
A fine and versatile picker, Martin is as serious a student of the banjo as he is of comedy and dramatic acting. And from start to end, "The Crow" is an impressive triumph.