Successful actors looking to expand their creative scope into music generally have their recording efforts met with skepticism. But Steve Martin‘s 2009 collection, “The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo,” earned the veteran actor not only a Grammy but the respect of the close-knit bluegrass community. Today (March 15), Martin returns with “Rare Bird Alert,” his second bluegrass album on Rounder Records.
“I came in as an outsider, so I didn’t know what the reception would be like, but it was very warm,” says Martin, whose “The Crow” netted the best bluegrass album Grammy in 2010. “The [International Bluegrass Music Assn.] treated us very well. The Grammys treated us very well. I couldn’t have been happier. We reached a lot of bluegrass people, and I think we reached a lot of non-bluegrass people too.”
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Rounder VP of promotion Brad Paul says Martin’s skill and attitude helped him gain acceptance. “First and foremost the music spoke for itself, and Steve is a very humble fellow,” Paul says. “He went to the International Bluegrass Music Assn. Conference in Nashville, presented an award and performed on the show, then spent time afterward just hanging out and meeting people. That went a long way in terms of the community. He’s a genuine fellow and serious about the music, not just an interloper.”
Martin has played the banjo for years, but his foray into bluegrass began when Tony Trischka invited him to play on his 2007 album, “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.” Martin contributed the song “The Crow,” which led to his recording his debut bluegrass album, produced by John McEuen.
“Rare Bird Alert” features 13 new tracks written by Martin. The Steep Canyon Rangers, who have toured extensively with Martin, perform on the album and co-wrote three songs.
“My wife and her family like to vacation in North Carolina,” he says of discovering the Rangers. The Martins invited them over for dinner and during a jam session, he became a fan. “[When I started touring] we asked them if they wanted to play and it was one of those lucky things where it just worked out,” he says. “They liked doing the humor and they play well. It was just a miracle of a find.”
Produced by Trischka, the album includes a mix of vocal and instrumental tracks and features the Dixie Chicks on “You” and Paul McCartney on “Best Love.”
“I had met him three or four times and we had mutual friends,” Martin says of enlisting McCartney. “He was very gung-ho. When we told him, ‘I think we got it,’ he would say, ‘Oh, let me do a few more.’ He was really sweet.”
“Rare Bird Alert” also features a live version of “King Tut,” Martin’s 1978 single from his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy.” “We do that in our show and it’s a big hit,” says Martin, who established the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass last year to award worthy pickers. “I wanted to have a couple of live tracks on there to let the audience know that we do a live show and it’s a lot of fun.”
Martin, who’s also a novelist, playwright and children’s author, penned two songs (including the instrumental title track) on the Canadian set of “The Big Year,” a new comedy about bird watching co-starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson that hits theaters in the fall. His wife suggested “Rare Bird Alert” as a song title. “It’s actually a real term that bird watchers use,” Martin says. “They can call in to a hot line and find out where a rare bird is hanging around. Everybody flocks to it.”
“Rare Bird Alert” is being issued in three formats: the standard CD, vinyl and a deluxe edition that will include specially created playing cards featuring performers on the album. During street week, Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers will perform on “Late Show With David Letterman” (March 16), “The View” (March 17) and “The Colbert Report” (March 21). Martin and the Rangers will also perform at New York’s Highline Ballroom (March 14) and Joe’s Pub (March 15-17) and the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn (March 19).
In addition to servicing the album to more than 400 bluegrass radio programmers and advertising in Bluegrass Unlimited, Paul says Rounder plans to target Martin’s film fans.
“We will be booking one of those national ad campaigns in theaters,” he says of tying into Martin’s forthcoming movie “The Big Year.” “We’ll probably fire up that campaign at the end of the summer leading into the film’s release. That will be another kind of second-phase opportunity to [stir] awareness of the record.”