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Comedian Steve Martin, with banjo in hand, touring as bluegrass musician

Of course, he explains it all with a joke.

Actor/writer/comedian/dude-allergic-to-free-time Steve Martin has been embarking on a new, old pursuit of late: writing, recording and touring as a banjo-playing bluegrass musician.

As such, he’s used his star power to spread the music to new audiences, a designation that Martin explains with a sense of self-deprecation almost as finely honed as his finger picking.

“In the show, I say the bluegrass magazines have been calling me the ambassador of the five-string banjo. It was between me and no one,” Martin quips on a recent conference call with journalists.

“I guess it’s kind of true,” he continues on being a gateway act for bluegrass. “I mean, after people hear us play, the next time they hear a bluegrass song or a five-string banjo song, somebody who’d never heard it before will say, ‘Oh yeah, that.’ And it won’t be so foreign to them.”

Martin’s been playing the banjo since he was 17, first introduced to the instrument during the folk boom of the early ’60s via acts such as The Kingston Trio.

“I just loved the sound of it,” he says. “When I heard it, I literally could part with my ears the other instruments and just listen to the banjo. I loved both its melancholy aspect and its dynamic speed.”

Martin opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the outset of his career, joining them onstage for a few songs, and incorporated the banjo into his comedy routines, always playing at least one serious tune during his sets.

But life as a working musician never appealed to him as much as making people laugh, and so he focused on a variety of other career pursuits, from acting in films to the penning of children’s books.

Years later, when the emergence of the Internet opened the floodgates for discovering music online, Martin found his passion for the banjo and bluegrass rekindled.

“I could randomly buy records of banjo players on Amazon or iTunes,” he says. “I started to hear music again that I really, really loved, and that really just got me back into it again.”

In 2009, Martin released his first all-music album, “The Crow,” a mix of instrumentals with some serious, spitfire playing and tunes featuring guest vocalists such as Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Mary Black.

The disc would win a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and be nominated for six awards by the International Bluegrass Music Association, but to hear Martin tell it, it all came about almost by happenstance.

“It was just all accidents,” he says. “I had recorded a song for (renowned banjo player) Tony Trischka that I had written — ‘The Crow’ — on his double banjo album. And then it just dawned on me, ‘Maybe I’d like to host an album where I play four of my songs and have other people play theirs so I sort of present the banjo to the world.’ Then I looked and said, ‘Well, I actually have enough of my own.’ I didn’t have a deal. I just paid for the album myself.”

The success of “The Crow” catalyzed a follow-up, “Rare Bird Alert,” released last month, where such notables as Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks contribute vocals.

Martin also collaborated with bluegrass troupe The Steep Canyon Rangers, with whom he’s been touring, on the disc. They’ve put together a show that features its share of comedy — it’s not just one bluegrass jam after the next — though Martin says that’s keeping well within the tradition of the genre.

“Almost all the bluegrass shows do comedy,” he says. “I probably do my own style. So it’s probably a little different from what everybody else does.”

Of course, plenty an actor has tried his or her hand at being a musician.

The difference with Martin?

Here, the laughs are intentional.

“Sometimes when actors try to become musicians there’s a great resistance,” he notes, conjuring up the ugly spectre of Bruce Willis blowing into a harmonica. “But I’ll tell you why that is. It’s not that they’re trying to become musicians, they’re trying to become rock stars. And that’s always kind of ludicrous.

“But there’s something about the banjo — it looks and sounds very difficult. And it is,” he continues. “All instruments are difficult. And so suddenly they’re not laughing when you play a three-finger banjo thing at lightning speed. I always think, ‘What would I think if I saw David Letterman pick up the violin and play Mozart and it was decent?’ I would go, ‘Wow.’ I wouldn’t make fun of him.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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