In the panoply of unexpected pairings, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell are at least as odd a couple as, say, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Consider:
• Martin Renaissance guy author-actor-musician far removed from his wild and crazy days as 1970s-vintage superstar comedian; nowadays he picks a very credible banjo despite joking that hes just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.
• Brickell 1980s-vintage pop star best-known for the 1989 hippie-dippie hit with New Bohemians, What I Am.
But just as iconic Led Zeppelin frontman Plant and bluegrass queen Krauss struck unlikely gold with their 2007 duo album Raising Sand, Martin and Brickell merge with surprising seamlessness on Love Has Come For You (Rounder Records). The album debuted at No. 21 on the Billboard charts in April rarified territory for bluegrass, and Martins best chart showing since the days when Jimmy Carter was president.
Martin and Brickell will play with Steep Canyon Rangers on Saturday, capping the final night of the International Bluegrass Music Associations Wide Open Bluegrass festivities in Raleigh. They spoke with us by phone recently.
Q: What sort of expectations did you have when you started making Love Has Come For You?
Martin: I really had no expectations at all. At first, I thought we might not even come up with a song. But we did and then we just sort of kept going because there was no reason to stop. We did not have eyes on making an album or anything, until we kind of had one written. So we kept writing songs, and we still are. Were working on a musical now.
Q: Whats the story on the musical?
Martin: Its called Bright Star and its set in Asheville, jumping back and forth between 1923 and 1945. Weve done a workshop with it that went well, and theres another in February in New York. Some songs from the album are in the musical, but weve written another 15. It tells the story of this woman and the dark secret of her life. I do like the mountain modal sound, the darkness that it can have. That Ralph Stanley thing.
Q: Edie, what was it like to do a style of music that seems so far removed from anything youve done before?
Brickell: It really didnt seem so unnatural for me to sing this kind of music. I actually feel more at home with Steves banjo tunes than almost anything else Ive been a part of. It awakened in me this connection to my family from Paris, Texas. I grew up around Dallas, but always with this generation that grew up with country values moved to the city. It translates into this sense of bluegrass music and understanding the stories and language of that genre even though I dont sing or write the way bluegrass usually is. But its a connection for me I cant really explain.
Q: Yes She Did from the new album is a spry little banjo tune about suicide. Steve, does this prove or disprove your theory that its impossible to pay anything depressing on banjo?
Martin: Well, that was just a line in my act.
Q: Edie, will you participate in any of the onstage comedy bits Steve does with the Rangers?
Martin: I think you do a bit.
Brickell: Well well see what the night brings.
Martin: Shes actually good at it, has her own style.
Q: Steve, it seems like youve been accepted very well in the bluegrass world. Was there a moment when you felt like you could hang with the first-string varsity?
Martin: The first-string varsity of music is at a level of sophistication thats well beyond me. But as long as Im in my comfort zone, I can do what I need. My comfort zone is my own songs, which nobody else can play better than me, so thats where I stay. Theres a zone where Im extremely comfortable and dont have to be a showoff. I can play music and its emotional and I can, dare I say it, feel good about it.
Q: So are you two continuing to write together?
Edie: Yes, on the bus and backstage. Steve always has some kind of banjo idea as hes walking around playing, and a lot of it catches my ear. Its pretty effortless. Hes very easy to work with and brings out something in me nobody else ever has, to make me realize how much I love my family. Thats a powerful great thing for me, to feel so connected to people who are unfortunately long gone. Like my grandmother, I grew up with that generation, and this brought back all their joy and wisdom. They were a wild, fun-loving bunch and I think theres more wisdom in that than anything else in terms of what people can achieve.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat