Steve Martin can do pretty much anything. He has conquered movie screens, Broadway stages, prose (long-form as well as short), music – and comedy, of course, because everything he does is funny.
Martin, an Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner, has spent much of the past decade in the company of Steep Canyon Rangers, the Grammy-winning bluegrass band from Brevard, his backup band for everything from the Tony-nominated musical “Bright Star” (which will play in Raleigh in April) to this year’s Steve Martin/Martin Short tour.
Martin and the Rangers have also recorded four albums together, including the just-released “The Long-Awaited Album,” which will bring them back to Raleigh this weekend. This is their first album together in seven years.
In what is being billed as their sole performance together this fall, Martin and the Rangers play the Wide Open Bluegrass portion of IBMA’s World of Bluegrass festival at Red Hat Amphitheater Saturday night in the closing headline slot. (They performed two songs off the album on NBC’s “Today” Thursday.)
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We caught up with Martin by phone to talk about comedy, his career and evolving as a musician.
Q: “Caroline,” the new album’s first single, really leaps out because of that reference to the UNC Tar Heels (“I’ll be looking for someone who wears her hair exactly like you and who swears a blue streak when the Tar Heels lose the quarter-finals”). So you’ve watched some games with the Rangers?
A: I have! Really got into it, too. That line was really more for the rhyme and the scan. I guess they could have won and that would have worked, too. But it worked out that they had just lost when I was writing that. So yeah, I’ll watch with them, get swept up in their enthusiasm. Then I forget.
Q: I read recently that you were in the studio with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band when they were making “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” back in 1971. Is that true?
A: Yes, I was a lingerer. I actually recorded there myself, after hours, some songs I’d written. They’re on the back of the last comedy album I did, (1981’s) “The Steve Martin Brothers.” That was made on the coattails of the “Circle” album, which I remember as being a very big deal. Everybody was kind of in awe at being in the same room together. My manager at the time, Bill McEuen, is the one who had the idea of leaving the conversations in there.
Q: Were you familiar with Earl Scruggs before that?
A: He was my god, that’s how familiar he was to me. The first time I heard him was an album called “Foggy Mountain Banjo,” all instrumentals and Earl at his best. To me, every song on it is pretty much like, “What?!” I’ll never get to the point of playing like Earl, which is why I developed my own style – it’s much easier! I wrote once that most musicians think you don’t want to play exactly like so and so, because it’s just copying. But with a few people like Earl Scruggs or Merle Travis, there’s a benefit to playing exactly like they did and you get praised for it.
Q: You’ve recently been teaching comedy classes online. What’s that been like?
A: There’s a really nice website called MasterClass that has a lot of venerable people talking about art and the craft of it. They presented the idea to me, and never in my life would I have presumed to do something like that. But then I thought, “Gee, I’m 70 years old and I’ve had a lot of experiences that will go nowhere unless I talk about them to people who are interested.” That piqued my interest, and I enjoyed doing it.
Q: Is being funny something one can actually learn?
A: I think you can learn it. Thinking it can’t be learned and either you’re funny or you’re not, that might be true from the audience’s point of view. But from the performer’s view, you can learn and study and be inspired by people.
Q: “Nights in the Lab,” a song on “The Long-Awaited Album,” is a sweet little song about two scientists falling in love over spirochete cultures. So what do you think happens to those two?
A: Oh, they’re probably gonna get married and settle down. With romance, you never know what happens when it turns to everyday experiences. But I always wondered about the attraction between people working alone in a “sophisticated” environment. You hear a lot about riding down the street in Winslow, Ariz., but not about workplace romances. So that was very sweet.
Q: It has to be satisfying, watching your mates in Steep Canyon Rangers blossom and do so well, both with and without you.
A: It’s so fantastic, and they deserve it. Me, I’m an appendage. But they do everything on their own, too, write all their own music. Every time I go backstage, they’re rehearsing, working on another song.
Q: Does songwriting come easy for you?
A: I enjoy working on a song. Sometimes they come right away, sometimes they need time or even advice – all three of those methods. There are songs I don’t give up on so much as put aside. I just enjoy it, I don’t sweat it. It’s not my profession, so I’m able to think of it as fun.
Q: For as long as you’ve been a musician and made records, it still feels like music isn’t your profession?
A: Well, music is part of my artistic endeavors but I don’t expect it to make me a millionaire. I expect to lose money on it, in fact. My real job now is touring with Marty Short and Steep Canyon Rangers.
Wide Open Bluegrass shows are Friday and Saturday at Red Hat Amphitheater. Single-day tickets start at $50 for IBMA members, $60 for the general public. Two-day passes start at $80 for IBMA members and $100 for nonmembers.
Here is Saturday’s schedule. For details, go to http://www.wideopenbluegrass.com.
noon Sister Sadie
1 p.m. Chatham County Line
2 p.m. Bluegrass 45
3 p.m. Sierra Hull
4 p.m. Lonesome River Band
5 p.m. Balsam Range
6:30 p.m. The Travelin’ McCourys
8 p.m. Hot Rize
9:45 p.m. Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Steve Martin