Steve Martin: Still crazy after all these years

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Steve Martin told a sold-out Britt crowd Sunday night his long-time dream was to play the banjo in Medford. Yes, that Steve Martin. The white-haired picker fronting the Steep Canyon Rangers bluegrass band was the original wild and crazy guy.

Before "Saturday Night Live," before "King Tut," before the arrow-through-the-head goofiness, Hollywood celebrity and success as a playwright ("Picasso at the Lapin Agile") and fiction writer ("Shopgirl"), Martin fell in love with the banjo, and it was featured in his comedy act early in his career.

It was nearly 9 p.m. when Martin walked onto the stage in a white sport coat with this seriously good bluegrass band with roots in North Carolina where they seem to take in that high, lonesome twang in the air and the water.

Martin cracked jokes at his own expense, noting that wanting to see him play some songs he'd written for the banjo was about like wanting to go see Jerry Seinfeld if he wrote a bunch of stuff for the bassoon. He said he really loves the camaraderie of the road — the laughter and the tears — on the tour bus after the show. The guys tell him all about it when he calls from the private plane.

Following a slow, soulful opening set by Abigaiil Washburn, Bela Fleck's wife, and her band, Martin began his set with "Pitkin County Turnaround," a Scruggs-style breakdown from his Grammy-winning recent album, "The Crow." Pitkin County is home to Aspen, and Martin was moved to write the song because when you see the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies, you reflect that only a Supreme Being could make all those gated communities.

He introduced "Hoedown at Alice's," which he wrote more than 40 years ago, saying, "This is a song. Well that pretty much says it." The hoedown segued into "Feddie's Lilt," a tune in an open D tuning which was, well, lilting.

Next came "The Crow," another instrumental, which Martin recorded with Tony Trishchka and which hit the bluegrass charts, making it his first hit song since "KIng Tut."

After "Late for School," a goof-song about just what the title implies — Martin actually sings on this one — he left the stage to the Rangers, who cranked it up a notch with the upbeat "Loving Pretty Women" and went all gospel on us with a sweet, a cappella "Sit Down" to die for.

"When you guys learn to play your instruments with that it's gonna be great," Martin cracked.

Although Martin's smart, offbeat humor was often front and center, he has some genuine banjo chops and a genuine love for the instrument. The album "The Crow'' showcases his original tunes — nearly all of which were played at the show — with high-profile assists from Scruggs, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.

Martin began playing growing up in Orange County, California, in the early '60s as the folk craze hit, then rolled on after Dylan went electric. A photo in Medford's Deli Down shows him swapping licks and laughs with high school pal and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder John MeEuwen and a young Jerry Garcia, another sometime banjo picker of note.

Not that this music stuff gets in the way of the patter. Martin claimed to have written a Pete Seeger-style protest song titled "Let's Keep the Minimum Wage Right Where It's At."

Much of Martin's humor stemmed from casting himself as an aloof old rich guy with an exaggerated sense of his own importance, a la Jack Benny. He said a lot of people ask him, Steve, why a music career, and why now? But those are the guys in the band.

When Graham Sharp, the other banjo player in the band, took a solo, Martin said, "That was really good, Graham. Almost too good — if you get my drift."

One song was inspired by fanatical birders flocking to an island in the Aleutians for a "fallout" of winged migrants. I'd repeat some of his birder jokes, but you had to be there.

When deadline called a reviewer, Martin was explaining to the audiences techniques known as "clawhammer" and "flailing," the definitions of which are beyond the scope of this review, other than to say they are definitely not found in the Kama Sutra.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at

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