For those of you who (like me) have assumed that Steve Martin’s banjo was primarily a prop for his stand-up routines (along with the fake arrow-through-the-head), this CD will be an eye-opener. It turns out that the instrument has been a passion of his since he was in his teens; in fact, most of the tunes here are pieces that he has been developing over the past forty-five years. (He wrote all of the songs on the disc, with the exception of a medley of traditional tunes.)
In addition to Scruggs-style picking, he is a devotee of frailing, or “clawhammer” style, a skill he demonstrates impressively on several cuts, including the first, “Daddy Played the Banjo,” which has a fine vocal by Tim O’Brien as well as supportive picking by no less than Earl himself. “Clawhammer Medley” includes Sally Ann, Johnson Boys, Simple Gifts, and Loch Lomond in a polished arrangement.
“Daddy Played The Banjo”
His picking is also beyond merely proficient, as he makes clear on several cuts, including “Pitkin County Turnaround,” “Hoedown at Alice’s,” “Wally on the Run” (a brisk tune inspired by the antics of his dog) and several others. For this last and the album’s title tune, he is joined by Tony Trischka playing harmony. “The Crow” had its first incarnation as Martin’s contribution to Tony’s “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular,” and the song made its way onto the Bluegrass charts (which, he said in a recent TV appearance, means that as many as 700 people have heard it). The tightness of their playing together is one of the many pleasures of the album.
While Martin’s musical side may be news to many of us, he clearly has the respect of the Bluegrass community. Earl Scruggs asked Martin to join him on his 2001 Foggy Mountain Breakdown album, which earned Martin a Grammy. He also appeared last month on Grand Ole Opry along with several of his collaborators on The Crow. On his album, he is joined by several Bluegrass and Country luminaries, including Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, who do a fine duet on Martin’s “Pretty Flowers”; Scruggs, Trischka, and Peter Wernick on banjo; and John McEuen of the original Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who produced the album in addition to helping out on a variety of instruments.
Two minor quibbles, both involving the liner notes. First, instead of providing the names of the backup musicians track by track, the various players (twenty-three in all) are listed alphabetically, accompanied by the tracks on which they appear. That results in a lot of flipping back and forth to see who is playing on a particular cut. Second, Martin has interesting comments on each tune, but they are arranged randomly rather than in the order of the tunes on the disc.
The album is more than a novelty piece; it is a pleasure to listen to, and I recommend it highly.