Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Steve Martin's banjo-playing alter ego

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Steve Martin and his band
Steve Martin (front) and the Steep Canyon Rangers have a Grammy in their awards collection

He's the comic genius behind Hollywood classics like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Planes, Trains and Automobiles. But comedian, actor and writer Steve Martin has another talent - he's been playing the banjo for 45 years.

"I started learning as a teenager," says Martin. "In the USA, there was a lot of banjo music going round in the 60s - and it was this beautiful, mysterious thing I fell in love with."

This year, at the age of 64, he decided to release an album called The Crow, packed with collaborations with other bluegrass and country artists, including Dolly Parton.

"It's been like a professional hobby my whole life, and I recently noticed I had written 15 songs, so I thought, 'maybe it's time to do a record'.

I met my band in North Carolina... they were playing locally. Of course that doesn't go down well in Hollywood - so I just say I met them in rehab
Steve Martin

"It wasn't like, 'let me get a deal', it was more like, 'ok, let's get into the studio and do some songs'."

He admits part of the motivation was a "now or never" moment.

"A year ago my hand started to ache badly, and I thought, 'in 10 years time you won't be playing'. Then as soon as I started practising really hard, it just went away."

He's also decided to expose his music to a live audience , and has been touring with a young band, the Steep Canyon Rangers.

They have just completed their last night of a tour with a concert at London's Royal Festival Hall, as well as an appearance on BBC Two's Later With Jools Holland show.

"I met my band in North Carolina, where my wife and I have a holiday home," explains the actor.

"They were playing locally. Of course that doesn't go down well in Hollywood - so I just say I met them in rehab."

Comedy undertone

Many actors - from Keanu Reeves to Russell Crowe - have been involved with bands, but Martin's awards seem to affirm that this is no vanity side project.

He's been lauded at the International Bluegrass Awards, and his performance on Earl Scruggs's remake of Foggy Mountain Breakdown won a Grammy in 2002.

Nevertheless, he was nervous when faced with live audiences - he gave up stand-up comedy in 1981.

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin
Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will host the Oscars in 2010

"It's very different, playing music to comedy. You want to get the song right and you're thinking about that.

"But on the other hand, once you're into it, you have three or four minutes to relax - whilst in comedy six seconds go by, and you're back on trial again."

Comedy has, inevitably, crept back into Martin's performance.

"I can't help it. Now, if we do a show for about an hour and 20 minutes, around 25 minutes of that is stand up."

In recent years, his career as an actor in Hollywood hasn't been too illustrious - think the Pink Panther remakes and Cheaper By The Dozen - but Martin hopes he's returning to form with the release of It's Complicated, a film with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.

Streep plays a divorcee having an affair with her ex-husband, as well as dating Adam, Martin's character.

"It's a comedy made for adults," he comments. "Not high school or young people. It seems to me not much is made for that age bracket these days."

He will also be co-hosting next year's Oscar ceremony with Baldwin - but insists music won't be part of his evening.

"The tension would be unbearable anyway," he explains. "I'm glad I've got Alec by my side as a double act, we can bounce ideas off each other. I think we like each other."

In the meantime, it's back home - where he admits he has a banjo in every room of his house to 'make him practise'.

"Except the bathroom," he adds hastily.

The Crow by Steve Martin is on release now. It's Complicated will be released in the UK in January 2010.



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