In his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up, Steve Martin recalls performing at Vanderbilt University in the late 1960s. Finished with his stand-up comedy act, he noticed that the audience wasn’t leaving — and neither could he. The stage, he noticed, had no wings, no way to exit offstage. He told the crowd the show was over and packed up his props. The fans stayed. He tried to leave through the audience and found people hungry for more. He made small talk, and they hung on his every word.
That’s when he led them out into the Nashville night.
“They stayed right behind me,” he writes. “I came across a drained swimming pool. I asked the audience to get into it — ‘Everybody into the swimming pool!’ — and they did. And then I said I was going to swim across the top of them, and the crowd knew exactly what to do: I was passed hand over hand as I did the crawl.”
It was a surreal experience. “That night,” Martin says, “I went to bed feeling I had entered new comic territory.”
In a culture that tends to abandon its celebrities the moment they challenge public expectations, Steve Martin has become a kind of Pied Piper, bringing audiences with him as he pushes into new territory — comic or otherwise. He has led fans from his career as a comic and television writer to a movie star, a TV idol, screenwriter and playwright. He’s played serious film characters, portrayed bumbling fathers in a series of Dad roles over the last decade, written brilliant films (Roxanne, L.A. Story, etc.) and become a household name.
Of course, it hasn’t always been easy. In 1981 — two years after striking gold with The Jerk — his record The Steve Martin Brothers, tanked, possibly because of its 50/50 split of stand-up and banjo-picking bluegrass. That same year, he made his dramatic debut in Pennies From Heaven. That failed, too.
A lot has changed since 1981, though. Look at Martin’s current incarnation. You can’t get much further from telling jokes with an arrow through your head than what he’s doing today — touring the country playing serious bluegrass tunes with a serious backing band. And what has this latest foray gotten him? Only his first hit single since 1978’s “King Tut.” (Granted, it’s on the bluegrass charts.)
Banjo music, of course, isn’t new territory for Martin. He picked up the instrument at 17 and began working it into his act early on, at first as serious musical performance and then as part of his comedic pastiche. He featured it on The Steve Martin Brothers and has played it in television appearances.
“I can’t imagine the vacancy I would have had in my life without this peculiar instrument running through it,” he writes in the liner notes of his new album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.
For the recording, he amassed 15 of his own songs (a couple of which appeared, in an earlier form, on the 1981 record) and an all-star cast of players, including Mary Black, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas and the great Earl Scruggs, whose banjo-playing first ignited Martin’s love for the instrument. For the tour, he hired the Steep Canyon Rangers, a terrifically talented young quintet from North Carolina.
He says the show includes some patter but is mostly about the music, which is fine by him. He says performing with the band is a world apart from stand-up — he’s not alone, he can sit back and enjoy three-minute songs instead of searching for the next six-second bit, and the crowd has different expectations.
“When I was doing stand-up, I had a rule to never look to the audience,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “Because even though it sounds like you’re getting a huge, huge laugh, you look at the audience — like one out of three are laughing. And some are just sort of staring sort of glumly.
“But with music I can actually look out in the audience and see people with their eyes closed — not asleep but, you know, nodding in time to the music, enjoying it, smiling. And that’s really new to me — to actually see the audience grooving. I’ve enjoyed that.”
Still, he’s coy about the appeal of his bluegrass performances, insisting that people who come to the show are bluegrass fans, not necessarily Steve Martin fans. And even if some of the attendees don’t share his love of clawhammer banjo but are only there because they loved him on Saturday Night Live or in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he says he’s not worried. He’s going to continue doing what he does.
“I just get an idea in my head and can’t get it out and just do it,” he says. “It’s a kind of virtue that I’ve never felt inhibited from doing something that seems beyond me.”
Ultimately, Martin may have found enduring success in his career not despite his genre-shifting and the ruthless pursuit of his own muse but because of it. After all, it’s all show business.
“You’ve got a show business angle and you do everything you can whether you’re a writer or performer or musician,” he says. “You just exploit it.”
And hope people follow.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Fox on Monday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $37-$68. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.