Some people are filled with so much ambition they beam. To the rest of us they look like a special breed, full to the brim with passion and curiosity. While the rest of us muster all we can just to get through rush hour traffic, they seem to have an endless supply of energy. Thanks to their lust for life, it seems they are bound for success. Steve Martin is like that, sort of.
Many know him as a movie-star thanks to box-office hits like “The Jerk,” “Roxanne,” “L.A. Story” and “Father of the Bride.” He’s also had success as a playwright (“Picasso at the Lapin Agile”), author (“Born Standing Up”) and standup comedian. Comedy Central chose him as number six in its ranking of the “100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.”
Now he’s done it again in the music world with the release of his bluegrass album, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo.” The critically acclaimed album was released earlier this year on the well-respected Rounder Records label.
It almost doesn’t seem fair. Is there anything he can’t do?
“Well, I can’t draw. I have no artistic ability at all,” he says. “I can’t really sing, I can sort of fake it. I’m actually not a very good dancer. I can sort of learn it for the moment, you know, and then it leaves me. I almost never dance privately. I think I’m terrible.”
While the self-effacing answer sounds down to earth, many might still think he has the Midas touch. The deck seems stacked in his favor somehow.
He denies this theory. In fact, he goes so far as to dispute that he has any special talents at all.
“I don’t think I have any gifts. 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 in a way that I’ve never felt inhibited from doing something that seems beyond me. I’ve always tried it. And that’s really all it takes.”
Getting out and trying new things has taken him far over the years. His classic comedy bits like “Two Wild and Crazy Guys,” which he performed with Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live, launched a massively successful career in standup comedy. That in turn led to Hollywood.
Movie roles led to scriptwriting and scriptwriting led to playwriting. Then he tried his hand at writing books. All the while critics applauded the contributions he made to each field.
Even though success upped the ante each time, it wasn’t in Martin’s nature to flinch at the expectations. He just kept taking the next step, putting one foot in front of the other.
“I’ve never really had a problem,” he says. “I’ve sneaked into different mediums. I mean, writing novels came from writing plays, and writing plays came from writing screenplays, and writing screenplays came from performing in movies. So everything’s been kind of incremental. I think that has helped a lot. That it’s not a sudden shift.”
If it boils down to one thing, you could say that Martin made his way by following his heart. These days that means playing the banjo, an instrument that has held his attention since boyhood.
“When I first heard the banjo and I heard its different styles and the different ways it could be played, it touched me somewhere,” he says. “I wasn’t old enough to have had a lot of experience, but certainly that music touched me in some peculiar way.”
Martin says the instrument is capable of achieving melancholy and romance that he finds thrilling and that is what appeals to him. He hopes to share the banjo’s possibilities with others.
“So I guess my job is to play that kind of music that might reach other people,” he says. “When I was in college I used to have a speech class and would have to read a poem. I always read something that touched me, and I wanted to pass that on so other people could hear it. Maybe that’s what I’m doing now.”