Although primarily known for his award-winning work as an actor, writer and stand-up comedian, Steve Martin is also a talented five-string banjo player with a lifelong love affair with the instrument. Martin played the banjo on his comedy albums in the late 1970s and made guest appearances on more recent recordings from other artists including Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka, but his relationship with the instrument was never officially consummated on-record until this debut full-length musical release and an impressive collection of his original banjo compositions.
Produced by John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the 15 tracks shine a spotlight on Martin's considerable talents as both an instrumentalist and a songwriter. To help bring Martin's musical vision to life, he and McEuen recruited some big names in contemporary acoustic music including Scruggs and Trischka along with Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Kenny Malone, Russ Barenberg and Brittany Haas.
It would be easy to take all of these talented players and hide the skills of a lesser musician in the mix, but the great thing about this recording is that it puts Martin's playing at the center of each song. Not only does Martin prove he has the chops to warrant his place among this talent, he flourishes in the spotlight throughout.
Some of the most notable tracks include the fast-paced Pitkin County Turnaround, Martin's take on the traditional breakdown style, the lovely banjo and fiddle showcase Freddie's Lilt and Clawhammer Medley, an instrumental that quotes several familiar melodies including Loch Lomond, Johnson Boys and Simple Gifts, the same melody the noted American composer Aaron Copland borrowed for his famous work Appalachian Spring.
Humor plays an important role on some of the most notable tracks. The lazy waltz of Pretty Flowers, featuring the vocal talents of Dolly Parton and Vince Gill, offers a new take on the traditional love ballad while the frantic Late For School gives a child's perspective on the considerable efforts required to avoid a tardy start to a school day.
It would be easy for someone like Martin to carelessly throw together an album knowing that their celebrity status alone will sell copies, but that is definitely not the case here. Anyone dismissing this as a mere novelty piece will miss out on one of the better and more interesting banjo albums in recent memory.