There is a long history of comedians, actors and the like turning their hands to music and the results are highly varied. From Steven Segal desperately trying to prove he has soul by playing Blues (excrutiatingly), Hugh Laurie actually playing a pretty good form of Blues but with a nerdish attention to detail through to Woody Allen and his regular Jazz band in NYC with Woody playing a mean clarinet the evidence is clear – listen with care and a cynical ear.
So up pops Steve Martin. A genuine comedic talent, funny actor, playwright and ‘eruditer’ (or bullshit philosopher as Mel Brooks would have it) and now he wants us to believe that his greatest pleasure – not to mention talent – is playing banjo. And, dagnabbit, he actually plays damn well and he has a band around him that play equally well but rather than covering up his weaknesses actually emphasise how good he is – now I did not expect THAT!
This is an album of easy and delightfully played bluegrass. All songs written by Steve Martin and all acoustic, featuring some excellent fiddling, easy and steady bass and guiter. It turns out that The Steep Canyon Rangers won the award as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Best Emerging Talent. It is my guess that they weren’t likely to saddle themselves with an idiot who only thought he could play banjo and so it proves.
From the title track, a superb instrumental that just sets the stage and through ‘Yellow-Backed Fly’, one of the most bucolic and heartfelt fishing songs I have ever heard and featuring the great line “twenty inches long and measured with a stick, he’s Old Jim but to me he’s Moby Dick” and if you’ve ever fished for a famous fish you will understand that line to your heart.
‘You Are My Best Love’ is a slightly cheesy love song featuring the vocals of no less than Sir Paul McCartney but that quickly gives over to ‘Northern Island’, a frantic instrumental and probably featuring the best picking on the album – simply great Bluegrass.
The whole album is suffused with good humour and sounds as though it was recorded with a big heart and wide smiles and you really will find yourself dancing away to numbers like ‘Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back’ and smiling broadly to the utterly silly but delicious ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs’.
Best track on the album is probably ‘Jubilation Day’ or the heartbreakingly lovely ‘The Great Remember (For Nancy)’ but the live numbers at the end of the album raised a big smile too.
I am genuinely delighted that this album is as good as it is, bad Bluegrass is almost worse than bad Blues, but this ain’t bad by anyone’s calculation.