Steve Martin
Steve Martin Credit: Sandee O

What happened to Steve Martin? When, exactly, did he cease being the man from masterful comedy LPs like Let’s Get Small and commence being the man who merely occupies space in unbearable family comedies? His is the same strange path trod by Albert Brooks. Both made their mark in the late 70s and early 80s. Both aged prematurely but made it look good. And both declined creatively in what seemed like direct proportion to their soaring box-office success (though Brooks began his decline in the late 80s, and his success came in one shot, as a voice in Finding Nemo). Like Brooks, Martin is a puffy caricature of his former self; both men make it seem as if late middle age and creative exhaustion were ominously and inescapably linked.

But Brooks hasn’t had a giant question mark shadowing his every move. Steve Martin’s question mark was impossible to ignore. Why did he abruptly end his blockbuster stand-up career in 1981? The riddle stood for a quarter century, until 2007’s unexpectedly revealing autobiography, Born Standing Up. Suddenly the baffling career shift was given dates, details, motives. In one passage he describes standing on a massive stage and peering out at a landscape few other humans will ever see: “The laughs, rather than being the result of spontaneous combustion, now seemed to roll in like waves created far out at sea.” His act had been hijacked by its own success, and Martin was honest enough to walk away cold.

The autobiography was a revelation. The guy from Parenthood stood revealed as the same old guy from The Jerk; the kind of fellow you still want desperately as your best friend, or at least as a long-lost uncle. The book prompted me, and many others, to reassess his entire career.

While still in high school in the early 1960s, Martin introduced the banjo to his routine as an act of necessity. With some jokes, juggling, magic, and music, he eventually stretched a collection of unrelated bits into something approaching a complete performance. (It’s hard to imagine Dane Cook—Martin’s heir in the world of stand-up in terms of sheer audience tonnage if nothing else—mastering even one of these skills.) By the time he reached superstardom, his comedy killed and his banjo sizzled in equal measure. In 1981 Warner Brothers released the sublime Steve Martin Brothers LP, showcasing both talents. On side one, it was lounge-lizard Steve delivering the greatest stand-up man had ever heard. On side two, it was mountain-man Steve gripping his banjo with stern solemnity. A great joke was made all the greater because the album actually delivered the goods on both sides.

This past January, 28 years later, Martin released The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo (Rounder). At first glance it seemed like a deliberate counterpoint to the demoralizing megaplex schlock of his 21st-century filmography (Pink Panther 2 would open in less than two weeks). The title track had already become Martin’s first hit single since 1978’s “King Tut”—a different version, released on Tony Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular in 2007, dented the bluegrass charts. “I don’t know how much that means,” Martin told the New York Times this winter. “It might have sold two.”

Martin contributes lead vocals to only 2 of the 16 songs on The Crow, which is probably for the best. When he’s not singing comedy tunes, his serviceable voice has an earnestness that’s mostly effective at distracting you from the fretwork—not a good thing, since his fretwork is pretty sharp. “Late for School,” where he sings along with the melody, is the album’s sole stab at humor—an innocuous cornball ditty that seems like it belongs on a kids’ record.

The liner notes spring from the inner sanctum of stardom: which song debuted on Letterman, which song the band took a one-day jaunt to Dublin to record, which song features which celebrity guest. Speaking of guests, there’s kind of an icky moment on “Pretty Flowers” when Vince Gill and Dolly Parton croon to each other about “making love.” The brain keeps expecting Steve to bust in as the much-needed comic relief—the oblivious spouse, the third wheel, the meter reader with exceptionally bad timing, anything. He never does.

But it’s a lovely album, provided you can hear it that way—it’s no easy feat to keep the obvious associations from Martin’s comedy records out of your head. (I managed it precisely once, while watching my cats wrestle to the jaunty “The Crow.”) Though Martin can play in a variety of styles, he’s widely acknowledged as a master of clawhammer, a down-picking technique where the thumb and the backs of the fingernails substitute for picks. It sounds impressive (and painful). Earl Scruggs, the 85-year-old bluegrass pioneer, is a frequent collaborator of Martin’s and vouches for his playing, which is like having Chuck Berry compliment one of your guitar solos. Several songs on The Crow hit a nice stride—in his notes Martin says he recorded “Clawhammer Medley” slower than he played it onstage in the 70s, but “Saga of the Old West” stays pretty close to the version on The Steve Martin Brothers. Yet there’s little that approaches the joyful breakneck anarchy of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the 1949 Scruggs song that both inspired a young Martin to take up the banjo and, four decades later, won him part of a Grammy—he was part of Scruggs’s all-star band on the 2001 recording that took the prize for best country instrumental performance.

The banjo has few friends in this century, though it’s made a microcomeback thanks to Sufjan Stevens and William Elliott Whitmore. Its rare contemporary cameos in film or commercials inevitably conjure one of a handful of images: a greasy-scalped George Clooney romping through O Brother, Where Art Thou? (for older generations, substitute Bonnie and Clyde in their jalopy, careening across dusty fields), the creepy kid from Deliverance, or Steve Martin with an arrow through his head. More accurately, it conjures memories of sitting around a stereo listening to Steve Martin and imagining the arrow through his head. Thirty years ago he popularized banjo music far beyond the range of vaudeville, Dixieland, or bluegrass, enlisting the primitive device (what he calls “a circle with a stick attached”) as a friendly and logical sidekick to his comedy. Hearing him perform studied, mature, no-punch-line banjo is like hearing Pete Seeger do an exceptional album of grunge covers.

Yes, it’s typecasting, unfair, a bummer. If you see Steve this Thursday night, North Carolina’s formidable Steep Canyon Rangers in tow, approach the festivities with an open mind. He is a truly formidable banjoist. This should be enough. If he were anyone else, it would be.